Committee of Public Accounts


Press Notice No. 26 of Session 2003-04, dated 29 June 2004


TWENTY-SIXTH REPORT: DIFFICULT FORMS: HOW GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTS INTERACT WITH CITIZENS (HC 255)

Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today government departments have an obligation to make sure that their forms are quick and easy for members of the public to fill in, to reduce the burden of bureaucracy on the citizen and improve administrative efficiency.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 26th Report of this Session, which examined the designing of user friendly government forms, improved administrative efficiency, and progress towards providing online services across government. Forms are important in the delivery of public services and the work of many departments and agencies. Processing them consumes appreciable amounts of public money. If forms are well designed and easy to handle, then errors will be fewer and the administrative load reduced, leading to considerable efficiency gains. For citizens, filling in forms is one of the most frequent ways that they interact with government, and how forms are set out can have an important effect upon perceptions of public services.

The Committee found that departments should minimise the burden which their forms impose on citizens. When designing forms departments should test the requirement for each piece of information and be able to justify why it is needed. Citizens should not normally have to supply information about themselves to a department that they have previously supplied. Modern IT systems, the provision of forms online and risk-based methods of administration should make this easier to achieve including, wherever possible, the pre-population of documents.

Departments should seek to improve electronic communication between themselves so that information submitted to one organisation can, wherever appropriate, be shared with others. As well as offering benefits to the citizen, such collaboration provides the scope for improved efficiency and reduced back office functions.

Departments should keep forms as short as possible, in terms of both the numbers of questions asked and the number of pages. The successful introduction of the shortened Attendance Allowance form shows that simpler forms can be introduced without unduly risking public money or jeopardising the security of systems.

Departments should instigate regular reviews of forms and re-design them quickly where problems become evident. For example, the Department for Work and Pensions had known about difficulties with the Attendance Allowance form since the mid 1990s. Use of a range of social research methods such as focus groups and usability testing can reduce the time needed and costs in making major improvements to forms. Monitoring of error rates can indicate whether customers are having particular difficulties.

Guidance notes should be designed to help people complete forms quickly and with minimum effort. Text should be kept to a minimum, and visual aids used to demonstrate by example what is wanted. Citizens want to start immediately on filling in a form and will look up guidance notes only if necessary. Yet forms often route people to lengthy and complex guidance notes.

Rather than relying on guidance notes alone, departments should consider other means to help citizens complete forms. The introduction of telephone assistance for pensioners when claiming Pension Credit shows how completion can be made easier for the citizen and can also result in cost savings for departments through reduced numbers of errors and appeals.

When designing forms, departments should meet the needs of customers with specific needs. Many users of forms have difficulties, for example, in terms of basic literacy and numeracy, language barriers or other practical problems or incapacities. Departments need to consult these customers directly on the design of forms.

Departments should demonstrate greater commitment to meeting the Government's 2005 deadline for the online provision of all forms, by setting out clear strategies, with milestones and targets, to make sure they achieve this. Not all the case study departments were confident of meeting the Government-wide target for all their forms to be available online by the end of 2005, or the related aim to achieve, for key services, high levels of electronic use by the same date.

While recognising that not all citizens can or want to access services electronically, departments should introduce strategies to promote the benefits of online forms to their customers. Many of the problems with existing forms and guidance can be overcome through the online provision of forms. For example, citizens can be positively routed through questions, making it easier for them to complete forms correctly.

Departments should determine the administrative costs of processing forms. For example, the Inland Revenue's introduction of the short tax return to three customer segments offers considerable benefits in reducing citizens' compliance costs and improving administrative efficiency. Yet at present the Inland Revenue does not know the relative costs of processing the short form as against the standard one.

Provision of a premium service should not become a substitute for improving basic forms and processes. For example, the difference in error rates between people paying £5 for the Post Office to check their passport application form against those submitted directly by customers (1% and 15% respectively) show that people do have difficulties with this form. The Passport Service should devise ways of improving its form and businesses processes to reduce this differential.

Departments should assess their forms against the practical guide produced jointly by the National Audit Office and the London School of Economics, Reviewing and Improving Government Forms. This comprehensive checklist, which draws upon a wide-ranging review of existing forms, should enable designers to avoid many of the errors of the past.

Mr Leigh said today:

"Government departments and other bodies have an obligation to make sure that their forms are quick and easy for members of the public to fill in, and minimise the need for people to supply the same information more than once. Improvements would reduce the burden of bureaucracy on the citizen, and lead to greater administrative efficiency and savings for the taxpayer."


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