There are few things that scream ‘interacting with government’ more than having to fill out a form. If you want a passport, you’ll fill out a form. If you have a baby, you’ll fill out quite a few forms. There are even forms you need to fill out in order to get other forms in order to get the service you need.
And as that last example illustrates, if we want to make government services easier to deal with, dealing with forms is an obvious place to start.
So the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government (or, snappily, BETA) from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) did just that.
First, let’s talk about BETA. BETA are a team within PM&C who try to make life better for Australians, using behavioural insights. Behavioural insights is the practice of trying to work out how people behave and make decisions, then applying this knowledge to program or policy questions.
So let’s say there’s a problem with doctors over-prescribing antibiotics. A behavioural insights approach would be doing research into how doctors behave and why. Then designing different ‘interventions’ like, say, a letter or a phone call from someone, to test which is more effective in changing behaviour.
BETA did this and found that the most effective option was to send a personalised letter to doctors from Australia’s Chief Medical Officer. This resulted in a 12% reduction in antibiotic prescription.
So how can you apply behavioural insights to forms?
We spoke to Dr Jacqui Brewer about how BETA are tackling the issue of government forms.
‘We were seeing lots of issues with government forms and getting a lot of requests about ways we could incorporate behavioural insights into forms,’ says Jacqui.
The team began by hosting an event about forms. Sound boring? Not at all – it was very well attended.
‘We were aware of the Form-a-Palooza events held in the US,’ says Jacqui. ‘We reached out to the owner of Form-a-Palooza and asked if we could hold the same event in Australia?’
With their blessing, BETA hosted their own Form-a-Palooza. They used real Australian government forms – ones that were often incorrectly completed or incomplete.
To work out what could be improved, the team started by literally trying to complete the forms.
‘I tried to identify all the friction points as I was going through those forms,’ says Jacqui. ‘We put all that on a whiteboard, looking at where they were falling down and what was causing trouble across all the forms.’
They looked for common patterns and engineered advice around them. That's how the WISER framework was developed.
The WISER acronym actually captures the entire framework:
WISER also comes with a Better Practice Guide that steps you through the process of applying the framework. You can download WISER and the Guide on PM&C’s Behavioural Economics Be-Guided page.
‘We made sure WISER was easy for anyone to use. You don’t have to be a behavioural insights expert to adopt this framework,’ says Jacqui.
Jacqui says part of what drove the team was their own experiences on both sides of the fence.
‘We're citizens as well as public servants. So, we experience our own frustration at times with government processes.’
These experiences helped shape some of their advice, such as tailoring the form to the audience (W in the WISER framework).
‘If you've just had a baby, for example, being asked to fill out a form called E789 or something similar is so impersonal,’ says Jacqui. ‘There were even cases where you were filling out 3 forms with almost the exact same information.’
Similarly, long, unclear sentences can mean people just don’t get through a form. Shorter, clearer instructions are better (I in the framework).
‘With long sentences, you're putting too much cognitive load on the people trying to fill it out,’ says Jacqui. ‘That's where mistakes happen and where dropouts happen.’
However, she says often legal requirements thwart good intentions.
‘In some cases legal stuff has to go into forms and they have to comply with various legislation.’
Even small improvements to forms can have an outsized impact on people’s lives.
‘Forms are a part of Government that reaches a lot of people. So by improving them, you can have high impact with relatively low upfront investment,’ claims Jacqui.
The team are continuing their work on helping public servants to create better forms. And there’s continuing interest in other Form-a-Palooza workshops which they hope to create as virtual events.
‘People have really grabbed onto the WISER framework,’ says Jacqui. ‘I think they see it as something really practical that they can do.’
So if you’re looking to make a practical difference to people’s lives, and you’re looking to make them fill out a form, maybe look into the PM&C's WISER framework and better practice guide. Tell BETA we sent you!
The Public Sector Innovation Network (PSIN) was an Australian government network helping public servants understand and apply innovation in their daily work. PSIN ceased on 8 January 2021.
See more PSIN resources or read about PSIN on the National Library of Australia Trove archive.