Q&A: Sometimes Bureaucracy Is Intentionally Complex

AP Photo/Jon Elswick

A portion of the IRS 1040 tax form for 2017

It’s a universal experience, having to fill out a long and complicated government form. You may have to pay fees to have that form processed or notarized. Too late, you might realize you actually filled out the wrong document. Missing a deadline, the fear of the consequences, and the endless worry compound your stress.

Public policy scholars Pamela Herd and Donald P. Moynihan call these experiences and other encounters with rules, regulations, and the bureaucrats who enforce them “administrative burdens.” Using everyday examples like paying taxes and accessing social welfare programs, their new bookAdministrative Burden: Policymaking by Other Means, describes the administrative burdens that affect our lives in more ways than we realize, and how politicians can exploit these burdens to subtly and effectively make policy when their legislative attempts fail. 

Yet there are popular U.S. policies and programs that place few burdens on individuals, and Herd and Moynihan believe that these well-run initiatives could serve as models for less-complex interactions with government agencies—which can reduce your blood pressure and ensure that Americans can easily access the benefits and services they need.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Kalena Thomhave: What is administrative burden? How is it different from “red tape,” and what are the costs to society?

Donald P. Moynihan: Administrative burdens are an individual’s experience of government as onerous. Red tape tends to focus more on the actual rules—and not how people experience those rules. When you start to focus on people’s experiences, you think not just about compliance costs of interacting with government—things like filling out forms, completing documentation, responding to requirements made by bureaucrats—but also the learning costs and psychological costs that arise when citizens engage with government.

Pamela Herd: Learning costs are essentially finding out about a program—realizing there’s a program out there that can help you. For example, with a program like Medicaid that provides health insurance for people with low incomes and people with disabilities, you have to know that program exists, and you have to have some idea that you might be eligible for it. Psychological costs get overlooked, which are things like stigma—people might feel uncomfortable admitting that they use food stamps [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]—or just the amount of stress that’s involved for people when they’re trying to navigate programs. 

How does “policymaking by other means” affect people’s interactions with government?

Moynihan: Administrative burdens are things we don’t normally see or talk much about in the policymaking process—but they have big effects. We point to the ways that political actors have figured out how to use these burdens to make policies more or less accessible to their clients. 

For policymakers who want to make it difficult for people to access certain types of benefits, or make it harder for them to vote, or more onerous for them to get an abortion, these sorts of tools are actually pretty effective policy. [Burdens] also have the benefit of being something that the media or members of the public generally are not paying a lot of attention to. Doing something like adding more questions onto a form is normally not something we talk about in the press, but it can be a way to make it more difficult for people to navigate a program.

Herd: Particularly [when] conservatives have been unable to push policies through that they want, [regulation] becomes another mechanism to [force those changes on people]. The changes to Obamacare [the Affordable Care Act] under the Trump administration are a great example. Conservatives were unsuccessful at getting rid of Obamacare via legislative processes. So they’re using things like increasing learning costs by reducing the amount of time people have to enroll and not advertising the program—which have had real impacts in terms of reducing the number of people enrolling in Obamacare.

Moynihan: Another example is abortion policy, where in many states, if legislators could do so, they’d outlaw the practice entirely. But they’re prevented from doing so by Supreme Court rulings. What they’ve done instead is to look for administrative burdens like the layout of clinics providing abortions, the distance they are to other health-care providers, and the type of scripts that providers have to read out to patients. Basically, they’re making it more and more difficult for [clinics] to provide services without passing a law that actually outlaws abortion. 

When I think of administrative burden, I think of social welfare programs. In the book, you cover Wisconsin’s experience with Medicaid.

Herd: Wisconsin is a great example because in prior years, under both Democratic and Republican governors, Republican Tommy Thompson and Democrat Jim Doyle, the state worked hard to reduce administrative burdens to help people enroll in the Medicaid program. More recently, Republican Governor Scott Walker really shifted and started trying to enhance the burdens in Wisconsin’s Medicaid program. 

When Trump came into office, Walker was able to get a waiver [to introduce] Medicaid work requirements. What we’ve seen in states that have enacted new Medicaid work requirements is that they’ve mostly just increased administrative burdens. 

Moynihan: There’s very little evidence that [work requirements] increase labor force participation. But there’s pretty good evidence that it will stop people who are working, and who would qualify under the requirement, from getting access to health care simply because they can’t deal with the reporting procedures. To some degree, [requirements are] a mechanism to simply make it harder for people who are on Medicaid to access the benefit. 

This sounds very inside-baseball, policy wonk. It’s not something that often makes the front page. But it’s probably been the most consequential change that the Trump administration has made to health policy access.

Administrative burdens also affect people through more universal experiences like voting and paying taxes.

Moynihan: Any interaction that a citizen has with their government is a venue where some sort of burdens can take place. And they can be small or they can be large. Some of the burdens we take for granted—like paying our taxes—are probably more onerous than they really should be. The most universal friction we have every year is when we complete our tax returns. And [that system] is designed in such a way that it feels painful. And we’ve kept it that way at least partly because there’s some political belief that paying taxes should be painful.

But a pilot program in California provided [pre-filled out] returns to taxpayers: Participants were essentially told by the government: Here’s what we think you earned last year. If you agree with this, just sign it and send it back to us. You didn’t have to chase down your W-2s or any of the forms you need to document expenses.

That’s an example of simplification of a process that the U.S. hasn’t really pursued. At a national level, it would be possible to do this: At least 40 percent of taxpayers wouldn’t have to provide any additional information because their tax situations are simple enough.

We think there are a lot of examples like that, that by political design or by accident you have these citizen-state interactions that are more onerous than they should be. They could be redesigned to be a lot simpler and a lot more satisfying for a citizen. 

You write that Social Security is a program that has historically contained fewer administrative burdens. 

Herd: We’ve been emphasizing the ways that government increases burden. But part of what the book also talks about are the policies in which we’ve been really effective at limiting burden. Social Security is an incredible example of that, making sure that people’s interactions with the state are positive and not burdensome.

People think of it as a straightforward program, just cutting checks to people, but in fact the government has to track hundreds of millions of peoples’ earnings over their entire lifetimes. It’s not actually administratively simple to do that, but bureaucrats figured out a way to do it so that it’s simple for beneficiaries. 

To some extent, it’s a function of the universality and popularity of the program. But the program is so popular not just because most people contribute and most people benefit. It’s also true that the original bureaucrats who actually implemented this program in the late 1930s were cognizant of the fact that if they made it difficult for people to enroll—the program at the time was actually not especially popular—that it would threaten the program itself. One of the reasons why the program survived and thrived is in part because [government] kept the administrative burdens in the program pretty low.

Moynihan: They came up with Social Security numbers, which was a completely new and controversial innovation at the time. But it allowed the state to track peoples’ earnings without putting pressure on the individual to do that. 

How do progressives and conservatives differ in their approaches to administrative burdens?

Herd: Conservatives are increasingly employing this as a political strategy across a range of different domains. You certainly see a lot of pushback among progressives around burdens that are affecting people’s right to vote and around the regulatory burdens that have been put on abortion providers. But it’s more a reaction to administrative burden than it is an overall cohesive awareness that [burdens] are something that progressives need to pay attention to and prioritize.

Moynihan: Part of the lesson for progressives is that governing depends a whole lot on being able to minimize the experience of government as a negative and burdensome factor in people’s lives. It feels like a lot of the progressive brain trust is invested in thinking about policy design and policy expansion and less of it is focused on how to actually implement policies so that they are run and work the way they’re supposed to. 

What do you recommend policymakers do?

Moynihan: There’s a menu of options here. If you’re a Democrat and you’ve just reclaimed power in the House or really in any state legislature, one thing you should be doing is making sure your oversight committees [look at] major programs [and make sure] they are being run in ways that have relatively minor burdens. Focus the spotlight on bottlenecks in government programs where people are having negative experiences or struggling to get through the process. Hold hearings about those, try to look for ways to fix those problems. 

Some of that can occur partly through making better use of administrative data. That’s sort of the Social Security model, where the state has a lot of information about our earnings and uses that data to make the process of accessing Social Security really simple. 

The final recommendation is just how we train bureaucrats. We train them in skills like cost-benefit analysis, where they think about the cost of every new regulation government passes as well as the benefits. But we don’t train them to think about administrative burdens. 

Just getting that mindset in place for the next generation of people working in public service would do a lot to improve outcomes. Because it would help the people who are designing these policies in the first place to stop and put themselves in the shoes of citizens when they decide to add another question on a form or to close a field office. 

How did you come to study this topic?

Herd: It was sort of some personal experiences that instigated this project for us. [Moynihan] grew up in Ireland and he, as someone who actually studies bureaucracies and studies public administration, had a difficult experience trying to navigate the immigration system here [in the U.S.], [given] the complexity of the paperwork. He has a Ph.D. and he really struggled to figure a lot of that out. 

We also have a child with a disability and I was trying to navigate [Medicaid]. Even though I had taught for years about Medicaid, I was pretty confounded when I actually tried to navigate it myself. For a period, I gave up on the application process even though I knew she would be eligible. 

Moynihan: When we talked with friends, everyone also reported having similar experiences at some point with government. This is the biggest issue that people haven’t heard about. But they intuitively get once you explain it. Everyone has a story—about the nightmare interaction that they’ve had [with government], the inflexibility of the process, and the challenges placed upon them. 

We realized there wasn’t language or a framework that could help us talk about or explore those experiences. So we set out to build one.

What do you want to accomplish with this book?

Moynihan: I hope people come away with a framework that helps them to understand their experiences of interacting with government. Partly this is needed because we understand the critique of government that tends to come from a conservative side pretty well, to the point that progressives are almost reflexively defensive even of services that don’t work terribly well in practice. Part of the hope is to find a language that can help document when things are not going well and to identify how those problems might be systematic, and if they are there might also be systematic solutions. 

Herd: One thing is really to convince progressives that [burden] is something they really need to pay attention to. While it is absolutely important to focus on expanding eligibility for certain programs and increasing benefits for programs, it is just as important that we ensure that people are having positive interactions with those programs, and that we ensure that people are getting onto programs that they’re actually eligible for. 

Historically, in the social welfare example, you’re looking at sometimes half of people not being on programs when they’re eligible—that’s a bigger impact oftentimes than an incremental expansion in eligibility. The U.S government does know how to deliver services and provide benefits in the least burdensome way. It’s just that we don’t always do it.

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