Forms Follow Function

The Washington, D.C., city government wanted to redesign some of its forms — and involve residents in the process. The solution: a hackathon.

Successful Formula D.C. residents — helped by behavioral scientists, design experts, and others — cut through red tape.

No matter how dry or lifeless it seems, any subject can make for a good meeting. It just depends no how you frame and present things. Exhibit A (Subsection 3, Paragraph R, Line 5): Form-a-Palooza.

Yes, it was an event designed to improve the experience of filling out government forms. In — where else — Washington, D.C.

Hosted by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, the seven-hour hackathon was the brainchild of The Lab @ DC, an evidence-based policy group launched by the D.C. government to coordinate innovation across city agencies. A group of residents, with help from behavioral scientists, design experts, and representatives from D.C. agencies, redesigned five of the city’s forms during the event, which took place at the American University School of Public Affairs in July.

While The Lab had been working on projects for at least a year at the time, Form-a-Palooza was its first public event. It grew out of a Bowser initiative to improve customer service across D.C. government. Tweaking forms is a great way to do that, said Karissa Minnich, operations analyst for The Lab. Plus, the task fit with some of the work Minnich’s boss, Lab director David Yokum, had done on federal-government forms a few years earlier when he worked in the Obama administration.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE

The Lab began working with various D.C. government agencies to identify forms that could use a redesign. Ultimately, they chose five that would affect the widest variety of citizen stakeholders, with no two forms coming from the same agency, including the Driver License and Identification Card Application from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and the Disability Services Intake Application from the Department of Disability Services (DDS). “We thought that by having a broad range of form types, Minnich said, “we would be able to attract a wider group of residents and stakeholder groups to the event.”

We definitely knew we wanted this to be a constructive meeting.

Looking at the numbers alone, Form-a-Palooza was a hit. About 100 people from all walks of life attended the Saturday event. Participants seemed genuinely excited about the task at hand, according to Minnich, who along with her team had some reservations going into the program. “There was that risk of the session becoming just sort of an opportunity for people to air their grievances, especially about the process with which the form is given,” Minnich said. “We definitely knew we wanted this to be a constructive meeting.”

The Lab also knew that residents probably had little or no experience in behavioral science, plain language, graphic design, and other elements that are critical for creating smart forms. They invited experts in those areas to speak to the full group for 15 minutes each. Yokum, a cognitive psychologist by training, provided a top-10 list of how behavioral science relates to form revision. For another lecture, representatives from the Center for Plain Language emphasized the importance of considering people’s language perception and comprehension in the form design. Then Harvard behavioral economist and former White House adviser Cass Sunstein talked about the role that behavioral insights can play in improving both government function and citizens’ access to government services.

After each speaker, participants broke into small groups to apply what they learned to begin redesigning the form. The same group worked on the same form prototype throughout the day, applying new lessons from the experts after each speaker session. On the advice of a friend of one of her team members — someone who facilitates meetings for the World Bank — Minnich kept the groups to four or five people, so everyone could be hands-on and remain engaged in the process.

“What we tried to do was build an agenda that gave people some training in those areas but didn’t overwhelm them,” Minnich said. “We realized that if we put all the speakers at the beginning of the day we’d lose people’s attention. That’s just too much, and they don’t absorb all the information.”

FILLING IN THE BLANKS

The first Form- a-Palooza was a hit; a second may follow.

These work sessions lasted about 45 minutes, with people from the government agency that would be using those specific forms facilitating the work. Besides the DMV and DDS, staff members from the departments of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Energy & Environment, and Human Services were on hand to oversee the tweaking of their forms. Having agency representatives present served two purposes, Minnich said. First, it showed the residents participating that the agency does, indeed, care about customer service. And it built buy-in among agency staff members who had been working with The Lab scientists on the forms for up to six months before Form-a-Palooza. “Agency staff see the wheels turning and thus understand how people went from the original form to the new prototype,” Minnich said, “rather than saying, ‘I don’t understand why they would take out this section or add this or change that.’”

Another key to keeping participants engaged involved how they would create their prototype forms. Considering that The Lab called the event a hackathon, they might have expected to be sitting in front of a computer all day. But having one person at a laptop and everyone else gathered around it wouldn’t necessarily stimulate conversation or ideas.

Minnich and her team decided to go old school with the prototypes, supplying each group with chart paper, Post-It notes, markers, and anything else they needed. By the end of the day, five forms had been overhauled. Participants really engaged with the process, Minnich said, and there’s been positive feedback from other places as well. The Lab is being asked about holding a second Form-a-Palooza in D.C., and also about how interested researchers can create similar events in their own cities or universities. “One of the agencies involved this year, the Department of Human Services, asked about developing a training series,” Minnich said, “where we would dive deeper into behavior science, graphic design, plain language to train five to 10 people who would then serve as that agency’s form expert.”

Minnich thinks the meeting format could be applied to any organization that requires stakeholders to work with forms or other paperwork — or even that has procedures that need to be revamped. “Just giving people the opportunity to tinker can make them feel part of the process,” she said. “I think people are interested in that.”

Switching Gears The D.C. Driver License and Identification Card Application before (left) and after the hackathon.

Innovative Meetings is supported by the Irving Convention & Visitors Bureau, irvingtexas.com.

Curtis Wagner