A New Year's resolution to improve government forms

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COMMENTARY | A good digital form uses human-centered design to ensure a positive and frictionless experience, one so easy you barely even think about it

In America, we often think about our form of government, but we rarely think about government forms. 

As we head into 2024, improving government forms is one new year's resolution we should all get behind. 

The fact is that nearly every interaction you have with government starts with a form.  

Tax returns. Driver’s licenses. SNAP Benefits. Voter registration. Every single one requires you to fill out a form. 

Filling out government forms can be tedious and time-consuming, but the experience that people have with forms matters.

At best, it’s an experience you don’t think much about. At worst, you end up banging your head against the wall. 

A government form is so much more than a piece of paper or pixels on a screen. It’s the connective tissue between government and the people it serves. And when it comes to many government services, it’s a lifeline. 

At its most basic level, a form is how government gathers data about people in order to deliver a service or shape a policy. They’re omnipresent, sometimes in ways we don’t even recognize. 

Forms exist at every agency, in every level of government, in every country. According to a 2017 report from the Office of Management and Budget, Americans spent 11.4 billion hours in a year dealing with government paperwork. 

How a form is crafted can make or break a person’s experience. Language and design are the key elements between a good form and a bad one. 

Is it welcoming or is it hostile? 

Is it easy to work through or does it give you a migraine? 

Can it be completed in 10 minutes or does it take over an hour?

Does it use plain language that anyone can understand? 

Is it available in languages other than English? 

Is it laid out in a way that’s easy to read? 

Paper forms used to be the standard for government, but since the pandemic, most government forms have migrated to digital. 

But it’s not as simple as moving the fields of a paper form onto a website and calling it good. 

A good digital form uses human-centered design to ensure a positive and frictionless experience, one so easy you barely even think about it. (Just think of the difference between filling out a DMV application and adding your shipping and billing information to an online shopping order.) 

As in most areas of our lives, digital is set to become the standard—even with government forms. 

And bringing them online has enormous potential to transform how government serves people. It allows for custom, conditional questions based on the information someone is providing. It gives government the ability to pre-populate data it already has. It significantly cuts down on time, not just for the person filling out the form but also for government workers who process them (which also saves taxpayer money). 

But why should you care about the ins and outs of form design? 

Because it’s about more than just crafting a good user experience for a boring form. 

The humble form is a vehicle that can speed the delivery of essential government services. A well-designed, digital-first form can help ensure that critical government benefits get into the hands of those who are eligible for them. 

Tax credits, housing support, child care assistance, Medicaid services, veterans’ benefits, food assistance—these are all services that start with requiring you to fill out a form. 

When my nonprofit, Code for America, was founded, the only way to apply for SNAP benefits online in California required sitting at a desktop computer for more than an hour, answering questions across dozens and dozens of screens, without the ability to save your progress or go back. 

So we built GetCalFresh.org, a digital assistant that walks you through the application process for California’s SNAP program.

Now, you can go to the website on your phone, select from one of four languages, answer a series of simple questions one by one, and after about ten minutes you’ll be ready to click submit. It’s a user-friendly website that’s helped millions of Californians access food benefits. Just by helping them fill out a form. 

 A well-designed government form is the key to unlocking benefits for tens of millions of people across the country. And giving them a positive experience filling out that form may be one of the best things we can do to make them feel like their government has their back. 

As we enter a new year, there’s no doubt that we should think about all the ways to make our form of government function better. But to tangibly improve people’s lives, we should spend our energy trying to make government forms work better as well.