The Biden war on administrative burdens

Steven Kelman calls attention to new efforts to reduce red tape.

(Image: jorgen mcleman/Shutterstock)

Don Moynihan and Pamela Herd, a married couple who teach at Georgetown, are two distinguished and well-known public administration scholars; Moynihan just received the prestigious Herbert Simon award for his research in the field. Herd and Moynihan published in 201 a much-noted book called Administrative Burdens: Policymaking by Other Means, which introduced the concept into public management discussions. They define administrative burdens as costs that people encounter when they search for information about public services, comply with rules and requirements, and experience the stresses, loss of autonomy or stigma that come from such encounters. (They call these learning costs, compliance costs and psychological costs respectively.)

Under another phrase often used to describe the concept – “red tape” – administrative burdens are often presented as a reason, sometimes by political conservatives, not to have a program in the first place. Moynihan, by contrast, is a political liberal, and his agenda is to reduce administrative burdens to make programs more attractive than they otherwise would be. He notes two broad strategies for reducing administrative burdens. One is to trust someone’s word that they are eligible for a benefit rather than requiring a document to prove it. Another is to shift burdens away from the individual and onto the government by, for example, requiring eligibility workers to tap into administrative databases to establish whether someone is eligible for a service.

Though the concept has been around for discussion for a decade, the Biden administration is the first whose agenda explicitly includes taking on administrative burdens. (Under Trump, Moynihan notes, administrative burdens were increased in a number of domains, such as by introducing work requirements for receiving Medicaid and reducing funding for efforts to help people sign up for Affordable Care Act health insurance. In Moynihan’s view, this was intended to reduce program usage, though another very plausible view is that Trump officials were more worried about program fraud and abuse than Democrats might be.) Moynihan has written a piece in Substack, the website for newsletters, on these efforts.

It turns out that the Biden administration has reduced information reporting requirements in a number of areas, changes that I think Moynihan is the first to give serious attention. The Trump administration created detailed reporting requirements for the pandemic-related rental assistance program, leaving tenants scrambling for documentation. The Biden administration has encouraged states to allow people to self-attest eligibility rather than requiring documentation. 

While the administration has not acceded to liberal demands to cancel student loan debt, it has worked to make a number of existing student loan forgiveness programs easier to use. The headline success thus far has been automatically providing loan forgiveness for 300,000 individuals with permanent disabilities. Previously, the Department of Education had required them to verify their disability status, an onerous process, even though many had already done so to apply for social security.

One area where administrative burdens are being reduced – this is especially welcome news to feds and to those in public policy programs – is in accepting applications for loan forgiveness under the public service loan forgiveness program. This program had been such a nightmare that virtually no applicants have been found to qualify. The administration has now widened the kinds of loans and repayments that qualify, and the kinds of public service jobs that are eligible. Furthermore, errors in previous applications will no longer be disqualifying, allowing applicants to resubmit claims.

Moynihan has done a public service by bringing forth these examples. I am probably somewhat more worried than he is that abuse of reduced or eliminated documentation requirements will set in motion a cycle of tightening up again. (Put more substantively, I am probably more supportive of more documentation at the margin to discourage abuse.) I also was not wild about the way Moynihan sold the effort in his post as part of the administration’s equity agenda (the idea is that administrative burdens hurt minorities and the poor more), for the same reason I stated in an earlier blog post on the President’s Management Agenda -- that it adds on a layer of unnecessary political controversy. But in all, well done, colleague.