Government forms filled in by citizens can be made shorter and much easier to use leading to better access to services and considerable efficiency gains, Sir John Bourn, the head of the NAO, reported to Parliament today.
Forms remain essential to the delivery of a wide range of government services. If forms are well designed and easy to handle, then there will be fewer errors and less administrative load, leading not only to better access to services but also improved efficiency. For example, it costs the Department for Work and Pensions just over £40 each time to process one of the 400,000 applications it receives for attendance allowance each year, and the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency on average almost £8 each time to process one of the 6 million applications for photocard licences each year. Even a five per cent saving in processing costs for these two forms could save £3.2 million each year.
For citizens, filling in forms is one of the most frequent ways that they interact with departments and agencies. Forms are therefore crucial in shaping citizens perceptions of public services. The forms used by departments and agencies tend to be colourful, use large fonts for print and employ plain English, but they also often have complex internal structures, where users become unsure what bits to fill in. Forms often mix up questions answered by large groups of people with other questions relevant only for small groups of citizens.
Government forms are often very long and many also ask for very large amounts of information. A census of Government forms filled in by UK citizens showed that by far the longest forms are in the welfare and education fields. Targeting better-designed forms at specific groups of people (an approach called customer segmentation), should mean shorter forms. Until now, problems in departments and agencies IT systems have meant that they have to ask people for information that they should already know. Departments and agencies need to use modern improvements in IT systems to tackle these constraints.
Departments and agencies need to monitor citizens use of forms and use a range of methods, such as focus groups and surveys, to keep their forms under review and respond to problems. The best results can come from radical reengineering of forms and some departments are already moving in this direction. For example, from 2005 around one in six higher rate taxpayers with simpler tax affairs should be able to fill in the new Short Tax Return being piloted by Inland Revenue, which is quarter the length of the current main self-assessment return. And a new version of the Attendance Allowance form for elderly people should be half the length of its predecessor. These shorter forms should bring considerable benefits to both citizens and departments.
The advice and guidance issued by government departments with forms is also often difficult to use. Focus groups of citizens complained that too many forms came with very large amounts of guidance, for instance, the current Inland Revenue notes accompanying the Income Tax Self-Assessment form. Guidance notes and leaflets need to be dramatically shortened. Agencies should use more pictures and graphics and aim for a quick start approach that helps citizens get forms filled in as quickly as possible.