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Agencies’ online forms lack required interactive features

Although the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA), passed in 2018, required executive agencies to create online versions for any paper-based forms "related to serving the public" by December 2020,  many still aren't fully compliant.

In a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank for science and tech policy, a random sample of 1,348 forms from 15 executive agencies found that only 2% were fully compliant with IDEA. One fifth of the forms were completely noncompliant. Forms available as Word documents, Excel files or non-fillable PDFs were deemed non-compliant because they're not able to be filled out easily in a web browser.

Some of the most popular forms – such as the Department of Education’s application for federal student aid, forms for filing Office of Safety and Health Administration complaints and the State Department’s nonimmigrant visa application – were fully compliant, ITIF found. However, other widely used forms  -- including those for taxes, customs and immigration, passport applications and renewals -- are not compliant.

More than three-fourths of the forms sampled were partially complaint, but they still had usability problems.

For example, fillable PDFs without digital signature fields aren't fully in line with the law, since users must print the form out to sign it. Smartphone users require a third-party app or service to access a web-based form, which is a problem given that the law requires forms to be usable on mobile devises.

ITIF also found accessibility issues with agencies’ online forms. Many forms were not navigable using a screen reader, and others were partially navigable but lacked appropriate descriptions of text fields, check boxes and other form elements, the report said.

The report recommended that the Office of Management and Budget issue guidance on compliance -- something eight Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee have also asked OMB's acting Director Shalanda Young to do.

"Federal agency implementation has been inconsistent, creating uneven access to the federal government's essential information and services," they wrote in a May 8 letter. "OMB should ensure that agencies offer forms that can be filled out electrically on all digital devices. An agency's simply posting an electronic version of a static PDF form to a website does not satisfy the requirements of this section."

"Given the billions spent on IT modernization, it is unacceptable that Americans still need to print, scan, and fax government forms instead of easily completing them online," said Daniel Castro, vice president of ITIF and co-author of the report. "By modernizing these forms, federal government agencies could reduce waste, increase efficiency, and improve data collection."

This article was first posted on FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Natalie Alms is a staff writer at FCW covering the federal workforce. She is a recent graduate of Wake Forest University and has written for the Salisbury (N.C.) Post. Connect with Natalie on Twitter at @AlmsNatalie.


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