Measuring the administrative burden of government programs

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Current measures of customer experience don't include the learning, compliance or psychological costs people face when applying for government services.

The Biden administration wants federal agencies to clear away the administrative burdens Americans take on when they interact with the government.

That's a term that Donald Moynihan and Pamela Herd, both professors at Georgetown University, have been studying since 2010. Their 2018 book Administrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means helped popularize the term and the phrase has since popped up in guidance, goals and even executive orders from the Biden-Harris White House.

Now, the two are hoping to create a standard way to measure it.

"It's exciting for us… People see this as a lever to make government work better for people," said Moynihan. A standard measure "has this potential to sort of pull together research communities and policy communities towards the same goal. So partly we're also sort of trying to build tools to make these partnerships more feasible."

Administrative burdens are the hassles or onerous experiences that people go through when they interact with the government, said Herd and Moynihan. The more precise definition for the administrative burden encompasses the learning, compliance and psychological costs that people experience with government. 

"We're not born with innate knowledge of government," said Moynihan. "But to find out about a program or where to vote, we have to invest some time and effort to figuring out what services we're eligible for, whether it's worth our while, how to be able to apply."

Compliance costs are the "time and effort that one spends waiting in line, pulling together documentation, spending money and effort towards interacting with government in some fashion," he continued.

And psychological costs, the "emotional experiences" like "sense of frustration, sense of in some cases as extreme as fear because you've had these negative experiences," said Moynihan.

"An immigrant interacting with the state" might have "more traumatic experiences, as well as a sense of uncertainty and stress that might come with an experience where there's a lot on the line and you're not really sure what the outcome will be," he said.

Now, Moynihan and Herd are hoping to develop a measure to capture administrative burden.

Currently, "different people approach this in different ways. For example, the federal government does have a measure of customer experience that they use, but it doesn't tap into things like learning costs or psychological costs," said Moynihan, leaving "a potential need for something that better gets at the concepts that federal agencies are now being asked to identify on a governmentwide basis."

The pair is in the early stages of the project and securing funding as agencies are working to better account for these types of experiences.

The Office of Management and Budget recently released new guidance on the Paperwork Reduction Act that directed agencies to account for the "beginning-to-end experiences" Americans have when agencies collect information from them to apply for programs.

The executive order on customer experience from the Biden White House, which specifically calls out administrative burden repeatedly, also pointed to identifying administrative burdens specifically, with things like experiential data, ethnographic research, public feedback, data analysis and examining how people have to navigate services at an agency.

After making and testing the measurement tool, it could be embedded in customer surveys done by government agencies, and then be used to determine whether a new effort to reduce burdens helps or not, for example. It could also capture demographics to identify any particular groups that might be experiencing more friction than others.

"All these agencies are going to have to figure out how to talk to the public and get feedback from the public about their experiences with those agencies," Herd said. "It's really important that agencies get feedback from the people on these programs."

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