Identifying and Reducing Burdens in Administrative Processes

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Scholars propose strategies to lower the procedural hurdles of obtaining benefits.

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People are not always able to access the federal benefits, grants, and programs to which they are entitled. Tens of billions of dollars in resources are left on the table each year, often by people who desperately need such support. Why? One reason is that applicants face numerous burdensome forms and procedures, and they lack assistance in navigating complex program requirements.  

Decisions to grant or deny benefits, for example, are often made on the basis of form applications that can be redundant, confusing, and inaccessible. Recent research highlights how inefficient and harmful such processes can be when agencies fail to identify and reduce administrative burdens. Such burdens not only affect people’s ability to access the public resources to which they are entitled, but they also generate psychological costs, which can do lasting damage to trust in democratic governance. 

The good news is that policymakers are paying more attention to administrative burdens. During the Biden Administration, an executive order on customer experience and a revised guidance on the Paperwork Reduction Act have embedded the language of burden reduction into policy and administrative processes. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has made burden reduction a central aspect of its effort to improve customer experience.  

How are these efforts going? The Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) commissioned us to study how agencies identify and reduce administrative burdens—what is working and what still needs to be done. The report we produced offers an early assessment of what a practical burden reduction agenda looks like when put into practice.  

In our study, we interviewed agency leaders and staff, including people working in particular program areas, customer experience, data management, and general counsel’s offices. We sought to understand how agencies are addressing burdensome processes, what stumbling blocks they are encountering, and where there is room to expand assistance in administrative proceedings.  

We invited public comment on individuals’ experiences with burdens as well as their views about particular areas that need reform and the effectiveness of various burden reduction efforts to date. We received comments, for example, from legal aid organizations with clients navigating various federal benefit programs, such as Social Security, SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid. We also reviewed legal and social science research that has examined the psychological impacts of burdensome processes, and we brought our own professional areas of expertise to bear on the complexities and interdisciplinary nature at the heart of burden reduction. 

In our report to ACUS, we reviewed existing agency practices, drawing out specific types of innovations. We then mapped out a series of proposals on internal agency structure and culture changes: improving burden measurement and its role in cost-benefit analysis, modernizing data-sharing practices, and encouraging more robust user-focused research to guide agencies in these processes. ACUS adopted a recommendation in December 2023, in which it incorporated many of these proposals.  

We found that the agencies that are really embracing burden identification and reduction are doing so based on a holistic approach that changes the culture within the agency. Agencies that take this holistic approach are breaking down internal silos and encouraging cross-department collaborations that allow the agency to embed human-centered design thinking. They are listening to and elevating the experiences of front-line staff. And they are learning from the people who use the government services they provide.  

Important leadership from OMB has helped spur holistic thinking about how someone navigates government benefits and services across agencies. Approaching burden identification and reduction from a life experiences view—which considers the life events that lead people to seek benefits, such as retirement, transitioning from the military to civilian life, or facing a financial shock—helps to de-silo particular agencies. This approach helps institutionalize a more collaborative, human-centered approach. Such an approach can also lead to federal and state partnerships that facilitate burden reduction. For example, we heard from agencies developing more team-focused approaches with their state partners around the goal of burden reduction, rather than maintaining a purely compliance-focused enforcement relationship. 

The idea of “putting people first” is a perennial topic in structuring the delivery of governmental services. But for that rhetoric to matter, some basic things are required: an analytical framework that centers on how the public experiences government, a set of tools that puts that framework into action, and leadership support and a welcoming culture. Progress is being made on all fronts. Agencies have adopted this framework throughout all units of their organizations, including in their legal departments. Examples of internal design changes include bringing the general counsel’s office into program design early, building collaboration within various internal departments to streamline inevitable delays and false starts, and having a dedicated in-house customer service team with senior staff and authority. 

Expanding legal assistance and representation for people through various models is another emerging and promising practice that can help people navigate lengthy or complex administrative processes. Such efforts can include codifying ethics rules to allow for nonlawyer assistance—as ACUS and others have been working to do—building out more opportunities for accredited representatives and community justice workers, or expanding ombuds programs,. Providing better legal assistance not only can address burdens and increase agency efficiency, but it can reduce the psychological costs to program beneficiaries. For other sets of practices, there are complex statutory landscapes within which agencies must operate. The following sets of proposals are mindful of these constraints yet encourage more innovation within the legal framework. 

Better measurement. As agencies are being asked to identify administrative burdens, including learning, compliance, and psychological costs, they need more measurement tools to help them do so. It is unlikely that any single measure of burden will suffice; rather, a suite of tools can capture user experiences of burdens. Such tools could include objective indicators, such as time spent on processes, as well as sludge audit tools. Better measurement should not crowd out qualitative tools, such as human-centered design, because qualitative data on citizen experiences provides different insights into the source of burdens.  

Standardized definitions. Programs can have a confusing array of definitions and requirements that make little sense to members of the public. We heard about patchworks of definitions related to benefits eligibility across federal and state programs—and even sometimes between different programs within the same agency. For example, an agency might have different methods of calculating income, which can be a burden for someone who is applying for benefits across programs. Agencies can use existing regulatory and statutory frameworks to identify opportunities to standardize definitions or interpretations between different eligibility processes.  

Data sharing. Agencies can improve data sharing. Although statutory constraints can sometimes limit agencies’ ability to share data, agencies still have some opportunities that are not being leveraged to eliminate informational and cultural silos both within and between agencies. Better information sharing can help agencies ensure qualified individuals’ eligibility for various programs. Access to eligibility information can expand outreach to individuals who may not be aware of a particular program or benefit. Better collaboration on information can also reduce burdens by allowing for automatic enrollment or reducing the number of forms required for individuals to access programs. 

All these approaches require user-focused research, which is governed by the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA). Although exempt and fast-track processes are available, and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has encouraged agencies to use them liberally, there are still several informal misunderstandings about what the processes allow. In response to the ongoing need to clarify flexibilities, OMB developed materials to try to ease agency PRA submissions. The high-impact service providers are using these materials, with agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Labor, and Department of Education topping the list of users.  

This use of these materials is a great step forward, as they encourage agencies to align survey questions, keep surveys short, and publicly post results. But even so, we continued to hear from agency staff that PRA processes are burdensome and restraining. Agency general counsels can work closely with PRA officers internally to review agency policies to make sure all existing flexibilities under the PRA are widely understood and are used liberally. 

As our report concluded, “in many ways, the stars are aligned for the federal government to significantly commit to burden reduction as an ongoing effort that can deliver dramatic improvements in the quality of government, one that will be directly experienced by members of the public.” Of course, as we also noted, “this outcome is far from guaranteed.” Making real change “requires not just learning and using these new concepts, frameworks, tools and technologies, it also requires sustained investment of leadership attention and resources to the topic, one that values policy implementation, as much as policy design.”

Pamela Herd

Pamela Herd is a Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.

Donald Moynihan

Donald Moynihan is the inaugural McCourt Chair at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.

Amy Widman

Amy Widman is Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School.

This essay is part of a series of essays titled, “Moving Administrative Processes Forward, Together.”