An Opportunity for TransFORMation

A day-long, public event, brings together residents, city staff, behavioral scientists, and plain language experts to put pen to paper and remake give District government forms.

An Opportunity for TransFORMation

Karissa Minnich, Operations Analyst, The Lab @ DC

If you’re a fan of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, you might recall this scene where an exasperated local resident walks into the Pawnee, Indiana Department of Parks and Recreation:

Pawnee citizen: “My bird is missing! I need a permit to post signs.”

Andy Dwyer, government worker: “Ok, let me just look for that form…”

Pawnee citizen: “There’s no time! He can fly!”

Jokes aside, we can all too easily empathize with the experience. Forms are a regular part of our lives: We apply for driver licenses, register to vote, pursue business licenses, enroll in health insurance, and so much more. The experience can unfortunately feel like a tedious barrier to getting what we need.

In 2015 alone, Americans spent 9.78 billion hours filling out government forms. But a poorly designed form isn’t just frustrating. It can prevent people from getting essential services efficiently or even at all. It can be the difference between receiving food stamps and putting your family to bed hungry.

The challenge of bad forms is not a new one. In 1980, Congress passed the Paperwork Reduction Act in an effort to balance the government’s desire for information against the burden it placed on the citizen to provide it. The Act highlighted a shared frustration from citizens, organizations, and businesses who were not only bothered by the burden on their time, but who bristled at the government intruding into their activities.

Robert Barnett, who spent a great deal of this career on form design offers this caution; “You need to recognize that [as a government worker] you are frequently dealing with hostile form-fillers and when you present them with a form that even remotely looks like deception, there is no guarantee of honest answers.” Poorly designed forms also undermine citizen confidence and trust in their government.

Barriers to services, intrusions of privacy, growing frustration, and the erosion of trust… that’s a lot of power for a piece of paper; and a lot of opportunity for government.  

Recognizing this opportunity to transform the citizen experience, The Lab @ DC along with DC Mayor Muriel Bowser hosted the first-ever Form-a-Palooza in July 2017. This day-long, public event brought together residents, city staff, behavioral scientists, and plain language experts to put pen to paper and remake five District government forms.

The result? Several prototypes of each of the forms, ample notes from residents on what didn’t work in the current versions, and many suggestions on how to make the forms better for users. In the months that followed, The Lab @ DC and agency partners refined these prototypes, stylized them, tested them, and translated them for roll-out in October 2017.  Check out the before and afters at

Sound like fun? We’ll we’re doing it again! And we want you – DC residents – to be there. Register to join us for Form-a-Palooza 2018 on Saturday, June 30 to overhaul:

  • DC Public School Enrollment Packet
  • Child Care Subsidy Application
  • Certificate of Occupancy Application
  • Food Truck Health Certificate Application
  • Disability Parking Space & Placard Application

Information Collection Budget of the United States Government. (2016). Office of Management and Budget.
Barnett, R. (2007). Designing Useable Forms: Success Guaranteed. Robert Barnett and Associates Pty Ltd (Australia).