The Government’s Paperwork Problem is Undermining Public Trust

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An audit suggests agencies are doing a poor job of assessing the burden their information requests place on the public.

Filling out government forms to receive benefits, pay taxes or have other services provided by the government can be a real drag—one made worse by the government’s inability to ascertain the impact their paperwork requests have on the public.

An Aug. 10 audit by the Government Accountability Office on the IRS and departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services and Transportation found those agencies are not closely following the Paperwork Reduction Act.

The law, last amended in 1995, is supposed to minimize the public burden from government information requests to make them as efficient as possible. Yet the audit found myriad flaws in three key phases of public outreach.

The PRA requires agencies to solicit public comments through the Federal Register. GAO found only 6 of 200 information collection requests on the register mentioned “burden hour estimates,” a key data point for agencies to calculate public burden. In other words, agencies did not bother to ask the public how much time they spent fulfilling certain paperwork, such as filing taxes or completing paperwork for receive veterans benefits.

GAO found two significant additional limitations to how agencies estimate public burden. Seventy-six of the 200 ICRs GAO reviewed—including the two largest at IRS and Transportation—“did not translate burden hours into dollars, or estimate respondent time costs.”

Although the Office of Management and Budget requires that burden hours be converted to dollars, OMB approved all 76 of the ICRs anyway.

Lastly, while Agriculture, Health and Human Services and Transportation reported having independent review processes in place as required by PRA, neither the agencies nor the review teams detected “math errors” or “inconsistencies among estimates.” GAO found one ICR underestimated burden by $270 million, and another overestimated burden by 12 million hours.

The audit notes that OMB did not catch those errors or inconsistencies either.

“Until agencies ensure that their review processes adequately detect errors and inconsistencies, the agencies cannot ensure that their burden estimates are reliable, may result in less confidence in agencies’ ability to accurately compute and report burden and as such, less confidence in agencies’ ability to effectively manage and minimize the burden they impose on the public,” the audit states.

The government has a poor track record serving customers, routinely falling below telecommunications providers and airliners in customer experience measurements.

To correct these and other efficiencies highlighted in the audit, GAO laid out 11 recommendations, most of which focus on providing more detailed information to the public and other stakeholders. Thus far, no agencies have responded to those recommendations.