Sometimes, just rewriting a form can improve a federal program

If there's a universal constant among federal agencies, it's forms. Forms often get complicated and that can impede people's applications for benefits.

If there’s a universal constant among federal agencies, it’s forms. Forms often get complicated and that can impede people’s applications for benefits.  The Federal Drive with Tom Temin‘s guest has been on a sort of crusade to improve and simplify forms. Kyle Gardiner is a senior policy analyst at the Office of Management and Budget and now a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And you are on the younger end of federal employees. What on earth motivated you to become interested in federal forms?

Kyle Gardiner You know, that’s actually a good question. And I don’t know if I wasn’t motivated. Before I arrived at OMB, I’m at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. And I joined that position primarily because of our work doing sort of economic analysis related to regulations. And the moment you show up, you find out actually what pays the bills at OIRA is our responsibilities under the Paperwork Reduction Act. That’s a pretty obscure law, but any federal employee probably is familiar with it. And essentially, every federal form, when it is created, or when it is changed, has to go back through OMB for review. So a big part of our job is actually looking at these forms, and sort of understanding why an agency wants to ask this information, how could it ask it better? Is it clear and concise as the information that’s being gathered useful? And so very rapidly, you start looking at hundreds of forms, and I just find that absolutely fascinating.

Tom Temin Basically, then, you’re an economist by training.

Kyle Gardiner I am a public policy master’s student by background. And so I think that is a poor man’s economist. So, a loose economist is how I describe that, sure.

Tom Temin All right. And give us an example of what you discovered when looking at some forms that kind of made the bell go off and say, wow.

Kyle Gardiner Yeah, absolutely. So I think, you know, one of the interesting things about this law is basically, an agency has to provide a pretty detailed narrative description of why this form is the way it is, right? And the other half of it is that they have to actually quantify how long they think it takes a typical person to complete that form. So, if you actually look at any federal form, there’s some bizarre legalese somewhere on the document that says, we estimate this takes 15 minutes or we estimate that this takes an hour. And what I was finding is that a lot of times, especially in the public benefit space, you would see these forms that were like 12 pages long, but the narrative description of what this form would be would be, oh, this is an application for benefits. And you know, you go to question 67, and say, why are we asking about if they’re also a black lung survivor as a part of this benefits application? Or, you know, why do we need to know this element of who they live with as a part of this benefits application? And a lot of times, there may be good reasons for that, but they weren’t adequately explained. And then you look at the estimate of the time it would take, and they would say, you know, 30 minutes to complete. And I would just put myself in the position of a person going through this and think, there’s no way this takes 30 minutes to complete. And so, you know, for better or for worse, a lot of it involves just sort of that back and forth to try to drive down what is the real motivation for these questions. And then, can we develop a more robust understanding of the time it takes? Because ultimately, you know, my perspective is it may be legitimate to take six hours to complete a form, but we should all be on the level about that fact. Because then that can lead to, you know, better enhancements in technology to try to drive that down, or, you know, regulatory reform to try to improve that. So it’s sort of about developing that baseline in an accurate manner, and then trying to find the solution is to try to make that, you know, minimally burdensome for the public.

Tom Temin Right. So give us an example of some forms you’ve changed. You actually did go on a little bit of a crusade and got some forms changed that enable people maybe with less means, less education or whatever, to make sure that they are equitably availing themselves of federal benefits.

Kyle Gardiner Yeah, absolutely. So the first thing I would always emphasize is that like, literally, it takes dozens to hundreds of people to truly change a form. So, in some ways, I’m really proud of this work, but I’m just like, truly one cog in the machine. But one of my examples that I’m most proud of is the Social Security disability recertification process. So basically, a Social Security operated disability program are really two that provides benefits for I think we’re about 12 million disabled Americans, and it’s a lifeline. It’s oftentimes their only source of income. But typically, the agency will check back in with you between three and seven years to say, are you still disabled in the capacity that makes you eligible for this program? That’s a really stressful form to get from the agency, right? Even if it’s a completely legitimate form to send, this is your lifeline. And what people typically get is, you know, I think somewhere in the order of it’s, it’s a 15-page form, and it requires a pretty robust update of everything in your life since the last time they checked in with you, right? What doctors have you seen? What hospitals have you visited? The prescriptions you’ve taken, and then a whole bunch of questions about sort of what we would call your activities of daily living, so how you function in the world. And we had held some listening sessions, where we had heard people express how traumatizing the form was. The quote that always reverberated with me was somebody who is disabled because of their cancer diagnosis, said that the form to complete for recertifying for disability was worse than the cancer that they had. Right. And that’s profound. And digging into the form, I think one thing that you saw is that historically, there was an estimate, going back to like 2000, right, it just took one hour to complete. And so the first thing you’re thinking in reviewing this is, obviously if somebody finds it so traumatizing that it competes with their impairment, it’s not an hourlong form, right. And then the second thing is it really hadn’t been revisited in a while. And so, sort of the impetus of my review was really, and this is, of course, the luxury of being at OMB, is you work with the agency, and you say, okay, let’s go back into the wild and try to figure out how to improve this more.

Tom Temin So you can almost start over.

Kyle Gardiner Yeah, exactly. And so the first thing that SSA did on this is they went back to the public just via the Federal Register process, and sort of did a much more robust set of questions to stakeholders, advertise that around to who I consider to be sort of relevant advocacy organizations, a lot of legal aid organizations and said, do we have this right? What’s hard about this form that we’re not understanding? What’s a real estimate of the burden, that’s true here? And then they took that initial feedback, and they started doing listening sessions, they started doing user research. And long story short, over about a course of a year, they first took a paper form that was 16 pages, and they brought it online for the first time ever, which is oftentimes a good step. What I think is particularly cool is that they have a lot of information on these people already, because they’re already part of the program. And they were able to pour it in from their records, existing doctor information, existing prescription information, so that when you get this form now, it’s already partially completed for you. And then they did some other cool things that we can talk about later, in terms of eliminating questions that were actually like, really unnecessary for this process, and I think will really improve the experience of people going through this form.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Kyle Gardiner, he’s senior policy analyst at the Office of Management and Budget, and a finalist in this year’s Service to America medals program. You get the impression that fields and information are added, simply because of the risk-averse nature of federal agencies, especially Social Security, and for good reason. But they feel that somewhere at some point, somebody’s going to challenge something, and they’ll need that little piece of information. And so these things organically just grow and grow and grow out of fear of what they might need in the future.

Kyle Gardiner Yeah, I think that’s really good question. I mean, at its core, a form is collecting information that responds to the regulatory environment that the agency is operating in, which is in turn responding to the statutory constraints that are placed upon them. And so I think every agency has a competing goal of trying to make sure they are serving everyone who’s eligible for a program while also minimizing people who are improperly paid who aren’t supposed to be on the program at all. And so I certainly think that a balance in any form is, are we going to ask a question that may weed out one in 100 people who shouldn’t be on the program, but what is the impact then to people who are eligible who also might be weeded out, right? And that’s a constant trade off in any type of information collection activity.

Tom Temin And under the Paperwork Reduction Act, which is very old law, people don’t realize, and it’s really the burden on government to, you know, prove why this paper is needed. Do you have metrics so that you can say this form no longer takes three hours to fill out, but now only takes 20 minutes?

Kyle Gardiner Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, I love the story of the disability recertification process, which for Social Security disability nerds is actually called the continuing disability review, CDR. But the end of this process, right was, I think, a form that is like materially better, and oftentimes at OMB, you can be paranoid about, is this really impacting people in the real world? And I will say that every time I’ve tried to gut check this with actual advocates, or beneficiaries, they have said, truly, it is. So I’m really excited about that. But they made all these improvements. And they also increased the burden estimate from one hour to I think, eight hours, right? So we do have a measurement at play to show what I think is a more honest understanding of the burden that exists today. But that’s probably because the original burden was way above eight hours to begin with. So it’s an interesting trade off at play.

Tom Temin And are you going to climb Mount Everest and take on SF 86?

Kyle Gardiner Thankfully, within OIRA, we have assigned our own desks, so I work currently with Social Cecurity and HUD. The SF 86 is not in my purview. The desk officer who does work on that is actually awesome, and has just an amazing depth of experience and knowledge. I will say personally, I just recertified this spring and I did very much note the burden estimate that was present on that against my personal experience going through that process again. So I have my own thoughts on that for sure.

Tom Temin And again, we won’t reveal your age on the air but you are a generation X, I guess, or something.

Kyle Gardiner Millennial, millennial.

Tom Temin Okay, but young end of the millennial.

Kyle Gardiner Yeah, okay. I’ll give you that.

Tom Temin What drew you to federal service?

Kyle Gardiner You know, that’s a funny question. I have literally always wanted to work for the federal government, like at least since middle school and possibly earlier than that. I can’t explain strongly why that might be the case. There is federal service in my family’s history, though, not my parents. I think definitely they had me interested in the news from an early age. I think I had, you know, very typical social studies teachers who got me into current events and government but truly, I’ve wanted to be in the place where I think you can effectuate change, most profoundly, at least as long as I can remember, basically.

Tom Temin  And people could look at the executive office buildings of the President and if they’d ever seen some of the interiors there and understand some of the processes, externally it might look like the most soul crushing place you could find in the hemisphere. Sounds like you have a different experience. You like it there?

Kyle Gardiner Yeah, I mean, I find the bureaucracy incredibly fascinating and to succeed in it, you both need to always be dissatisfied with the status quo, but also tolerant of the fact that you’re building consensus across an organization of millions of people, representing, you know, 350 million people. And so you have to kind of always balance pushing forward with being understanding that timeline’s a little bit slower, processes a little bit more deliberative than like you might expect in the private sector. So it’s a tension for sure.

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