Government failure

Administration Decides It's Finally Time to Make Sure People Actually Understand the Government Forms They're Required to Fill Out


The administration has come to the realization that not only does the federal government impose a hefty paper work burden on the public, it's also not uncommon for individuals and small businesses to find those forms confusing.

And so the executive branch says it will take steps to address the problem — not, sadly, by reducing the number of forms but by testing the forms to see if their intended audience actually understands them. The administration's regulatory chieftain, Cass Sunstein, explains:

From now on, agencies will be asked to test complex or lengthy forms in advance, by seeing if people can actually understand them. Advance testing can take many forms. Agencies might use focus groups. They might use web-based experiments. They might try in-person observations of how users understand the forms.  From those tests, agencies will be better able to identify the likely burdens on members of the public and to find ways to increase simplification and ease of comprehension.

All things considered, this is probably a good thing, at least relative to the prior situation. But the long life of that prior situation reveals a lot. As Binyamin Appelbaum of The New York Times notes, it's sort of sad and hilarious that there was no policy to ensure form usability already in effect. It's telling, really, that despite how heavily the federal government relies on forms and paperwork for its operations, and despite practically endless jokes and complaints about the head-scratching complexities of those forms, no one in power ever thought it was necessary to institute a process to ensure that those forms were clear and usable. 

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  1. Somebody really ought to nudge Sunstein into traffic.

    1. I would upmod this comment if we had such a system in place. Alas, we do not.

      1. Ya know, especially given the recent changes to the website, I think HnR would be better-off as a sub-reddit. The comment system would stop sucking, and we could downvote trolls into oblivion.

  2. no one in power ever thought it was necessary to institute a process to ensure that those forms were clear and usable

    Because the point in the first place was for them to be unclear and difficult to use, thereby granting vastly more power to the bureaucracy. I’d say I was surprised that they are going to test them, but I’m actually not, since either nothing will come of the testing or it will just be used to make the forms difficult and complex in some other way.

    The government never, ever, willingly gives up power. Ever.

    1. And generating cushy post-retirement jobs for govt employees since they’re the only ones who know how to correctly execute the forms, and can get their calls taken by the agency.

      1. It’s almost like it’s designed that way.

        1. Are you implying that governmental officials and their subordinates aren’t motivated solely by the purest, most altruistic of human intentions in devising and enforcing their regulatory webs?


          1. He questions THE MATT DAMON. The heretic must be sodominatederized!

            1. BEN AFFLECK

              1. Intrinsically paternalistically intrinsics of your paternalisti intrinsicism has no right to questioningly question Matt Damon’s politically sociopolitically sociopolitical views. You’re just a hateful hater.

  3. Suderman, you’re okay with me. Anyone who uses the spelling “ensure” to mean “make certain” must be okay at some level. (Insure is not correct. It means to financially guarantee against loss.) I’m always shocked and disappointed when I see how many extremely literate people get this wrong. Except for John. His speller is just broken.

    1. I slash and burn “insures” in contracts. Unless insurance is on the line.

      1. Disgruntled lawyers could be a bad thing. You could leave in that one word, and expose your company / client to a multimillion dollar loss.

        1. That would be unethical. However, it’s completely ethical to expose the other side to liability and to include the nuclear option in a liquidated damages clause: “In the event that Licensee materially breaches this Agreement and fails to cure such breach within thirty (30) days, Licensor may explode one (1) nuclear device of one (1) megaton or less at the address for Licensee set forth in Section 17 (“Notice”) below.”

          1. Huh, how about that. The law is pretty interesting.

            1. You have no idea. Especially in commercial agreements, where all of those pesky consumer protection laws don’t apply. I got Malta after sneaking in a clause with the EU. I mean me personally.

  4. Shouldn’t this require the creation of a new department of the federal government? Can I be the Secretary of the Department of Form Testing?

  5. If they do this in any kind of serious manner (which I’m certain they won’t), the IRS will be pre-occupied for years in testing its thousand upon thousands of long and complex forms.

    1. I’m completely sure existing forms will be grandfathered.

      1. The 1040 and most tax forms change every year. Sometimes they change multiple times within a year.

    2. I’m an Enrolled Actuary (“enrolled” with the IRS). That means I studied just under 1000 hours to pass 2 exams that relate solely to tax law covering private pension plans. And the designation is considered a starting point; new EAs are not considered particularly knowledgeable.

      I think the IRS “EA Grey Books” are particularly revealing. These are books of questions about pension tax law posed by EAs to IRS agents, and the answers the agents provided. They are published by the IRS. They also CANNOT BE RELIED UPON, according to the IRS.

      1. And rightly so – how dare you use the answers the agents of the State give you?! You might actaully be able to use them against the interests of the State – unacceptable!!!

      2. I realized the studying comment sounded slightly more like a woe-is-me or humble brag or something than what I actually meant:

        It takes about 1000 hours minimum of studying to become certified as a beginning practicioner of one specific type of tax law.

        1. So what happens to you when we go to a flat tax?

          1. Now you understand why we don’t have one. CPAs starving in the street!

      3. What are you when you’re not a dork?

    3. I always thought it would be a good idea if congress was forced to fill out their tax returns and then be subjected to an audit. Then maybe, when they all fail the audit, could they understand how fucked it is.

  6. Whatever happened to that Paperwork Reduction Act? Did it get reduced, too?

    1. I think it was like the Budget Reduction Act, in which the rate of growth was trimmed by a couple of percentage points for one year.

    2. It’s responsible for page long notice in most rules in the federal register, further adding to the amount of paperwork the government produces.

  7. Getting buttfucked by the government doesn’t feel quite so bad when you understand a little more of the buttfucking technique from the forms, right?

  8. You think this is a good thing, but it’s not.

    I predict that the primary use of this regulation will be:

    1. Require government permission to undertake some activity

    2. Refuse to allow people to apply for said permission due to the unavailability of tested forms.

    It will be like the environmental review process for development, whose sole purpose is to create transactional delays. “Well, we’ll let you file your FOIA request as soon as the new form for those requests has been certified.”

    I guarantee it.

    1. Don’t give these asswipes ideas. They might JUST be retarded enough NOT to have thought of this yet.

  9. One of the particular horrors of working at a public library is that you are often the place people will turn to when they need help filling out government forms. Between the forms, the careful dance of helping them fill them out without acting as the preparer of the forms in the legal sense, and the general education of the public at large… it’s a pretty terrible task to undertake.

    1. You shit your pants in order to escape, I assume.

      1. It was really only bad during tax time. Anyone who thinks tax forms aren’t deliberately obtuse is either a lair or an utter fool.

        1. As a CPA, we also do not understand them.

      2. Yes, to escape…it was to escape.

        1. Well, it was mostly to arouse himself, but escaping was a nice side benefit.

        2. Funny-cause-it-happened-to-someone-else public library story…

          Lexington Public had very few rules about the homeless; namely no harassing other patrons, flat-out sleeping or drinking. They finally had to call the cops on one who was guzzling booze right out of the bottle and then threaten to beat up a little kid if he didn’t give up the computer he was using. The cops escorted him out and nothing else.

          This guy comes back the next day, shits on a towel and then smears it all over one of the public bathrooms. Floors, walls, ceilings, mirrors, fixtures… The Jackson Pollack of poop. Someone finds him in there as he is finishing up and the homeless guy goes running out, covered in his own shit from the fine job and screaming at the top of his lungs. They call the cops again, and the cops just shrug and leave. They spend hundreds of dollars to clean the bathroom. The library administration describes the guy enough to the local shelter to get his name, takes it to the board and explain why he needs to be banned.

          The board bans him for one week. He is a member of the public, after all. We live to serve.

  10. This seems like a problem for fire. Pure, cleansing fire.

    1. I say we nuke it from orbit – its the only way to be sure.

      1. Can we use an enormous ring of MACs instead? That way, we can resettle immediately.

  11. That indecipherable government form you got there …

    You didn’t fill that out yourself.

  12. Let me start by saying that I’m all for reducing the stupid levels of paperwork but . . .

    Why does the form filler-outer need to understand the form? All they need to understand is each individual question – after all, the forms aren’t for *you*.

  13. no one in power ever thought it was necessary to institute a process to ensure that those forms were clear and usable.

    You mean, a process like putting a help number on the forms where people can call if they don’t understand them, and someone smart and possessed of common sense looks at all the complaints and tries to reword the forms to be clearer?

    Maybe focus groups if the particular agency lacks people smart and possessed of common sense.

  14. agencies will be asked to test complex or lengthy forms in advance, by seeing if people can actually understand them.

    My recommendation: Each form is to be written by one responsible individual, and if the test shows people do not understand it (or — more likely — that the form is *in fact* fucked), that individual loses its job.

  15. I’m surprised Sunstein didn’t simply recommend forms be pre-filled with responses experts will have determined are in our best interest.

    1. With the option to opt out, of course.

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