State slashes clutter for public assistance applicants

By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service

LANSING — The rollout of a new, simpler application form for public assistance has made the bureaucratic process much easier for Michigan residents, and is likely to save the state time — if not money — as well.

In January, the Department of Health and Human Services unveiled a remodeled application for government assistance, a project that had been in the works since September 2015.

With more than 1,000 questions and 18,000 words, the old forms were the longest application of their kind in the country, according to Civilla, a nonprofit Detroit design firm.

The department partnered with Civilla to modify the forms, which were slimmed down from 42 pages to 18.

The 24 pages, — and 14,505 words — that were cut included duplicate, poorly worded and irrelevant questions, Civilla co-founder Michael Brennan said.

In addition to the page reduction, the application became easier on the eye, receiving a pop of color and better spacing between lines of text, said Health and Human Services communications manager Bob Wheaton.

Brennan said Civilla did significant research to determine what design elements applicants would be most responsive to, and modeled their new forms in kind.

“Everything that’s on that form had been tested with residents — it’s really what shaped the form was feedback from residents and from workers inside the state,” Brennan said. “If it wasn’t working, we wouldn’t include it.”

It’s been only a couple of months since the new application’s statewide rollout, making it difficult to determine the full impact of the remodel, dubbed “Re:Form.”

But Health and Human Services benefitted from a pilot program, run in Eaton County and Hamtramck, starting in January 2017. That  provided an early indication that the forms would be well-received by both state employees and applicants, Wheaton said.

Clients in the pilot areas spent 25 fewer minutes on average completing the application, while department staff spent an average of 20 fewer minutes reviewing each application, according to Health and Human Services.

“We did have the experiences of our staff there and the clients there, and we got a lot of positive feedback,” Wheaton said. “That has continued as we’ve expanded it statewide, and we’re also able to make further tweaks and improvements as a result of the feedback.”

Civilla received $830,000 for its work, according to a Bridge Magazine report. And Wheaton said the department made the move to simplify forms with improved user experience, not cost savings, in mind.

Yet savings often go hand in hand with the adoption of clear wording on government forms, according to Joe Kimble, a professor emeritus at Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School.

Kimble, who is a co-founder of the Center for Plain Language, noted multiple instances in his book “Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please” of how shifts towards simpler communication led to increased response rates, cost savings and the need for fewer staff members at government agencies.

“Study after study after study shows that poor communication costs government — and the public — untold amounts of time and money lost,” Kimble said. “It’s almost incalculable. Poor communication is the great hidden cost of carrying on in government.”

The potential for lower governmental costs are seen as a positive, but Civilla’s Brennan said the applicants’ viewpoint is what guided his company’s efforts to remodel the application.

“Too often, we get focused on solving the problem through the eyes of the institution or the program or the money or the technology, and we get too far from really understanding the problem through the eyes of the user,” Brennan said. “We think most services provided by large institutions can be greatly enhanced if a greater effort is given to understand those needs.”

Wheaton said the focus on ease of use is starting to spread within state government, but didn’t provide examples from other departments. Health and Human Services is looking to incorporate some of the improvements into its online public assistance application as well, and he said the department will share its efforts with other departments.

Given the fact that the same essential information is now being conveyed with 80 percent fewer questions, Brennan said it’s a wonder that the previous forms got so cluttered.

“I don’t think there’s anyone that is waking up to go make it a difficult experience — we never witnessed that,” Brennan said. “But there is a lot of pressure on government to meet various federal and state regulations, and that gets accumulated over not only months, but years and decades.

“Like anything, sometimes it’s easier to add than to take out,” he said.

Kimble agreed that it was unlikely governments intentionally complicated public assistance forms to deter applicants in the hopes of saving money, calling any attempt to do so “unethical.”

He also praised Health and Human Services for prioritizing citizen needs.

“That’s to their great credit that they did that,” Kimble said. “I just wish there were more of it in all government agencies. Everybody wins with plain language.”