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How government program design burdens users, and how to fix it

20 August 2020

News and media


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The systems and processes of big organisations are often designed more for the convenience of administrators not those of citizens or customers.

An ANZSOG National Regulators Community of Practice (NRCoP) webinar – Bias by Design: when the design, implementation and enforcement of rules creates disadvantage – explored the effects of the design of government programs, and regulated standards for private companies, on the citizens who use them, and how can we measure and mitigate those effects.

Professor Donald Moynihan, McCourt Chair at Georgetown University in the USA, spoke of the impact that administrative burdens had on people accessing government services, the reasons why burdens were created, and how to begin moving towards systems that were customer-centred, rather than solely driven by administrative processes.

Sarah McDowell, Energy Director at the Victorian Essential Services Commission gave a practical example of reducing burdens: her organisation’s work in getting energy companies to recognise the specific needs of victim survivors of family violence and include them in provisions for hardship payments.

One of the guilty secrets of program design is that making a program harder to access can reduce its overall cost to government, but doing so can have the harshest impact on the people most in need of the program’s support.

Professor Moynihan said that we needed a language and conceptual frame to talk about the experiences people had when they engaged with government – he used the example of different US states having wildly different rates of COVID-19 support payments, not based on differences in need, but on interacting with different administrative processes.

“We are looking at burdens that are not in place when people engage with private companies. These are not always bad because in some cases it is legitimate to restrict access but what about areas where the burdens outweigh the benefits?”

These burdens fell under three main headings:

Learning costs: engaging in search processes to collect information about the rules governing public services, and how they are relevant to the individual
Compliance costs: the costs of following administrative rules and requirements
Psychological costs: stigma, loss of autonomy, and stress

Despite the assumptions of economists about rational behaviour, Professor Moynihan said the negative effects of these burdens were not distributed evenly.

“Education, economic resources, health, language skills, time and other individual resources shape peoples’ ability to navigate burdens,” he said.

“Most of us will be poor, have a serious illness or be ageing at some point in our lives. We’ll need help from the state at a time when these conditions will undermine our executive function.

He said that increasing access to information did not necessarily reduce barriers, because individuals could feel overwhelmed and lack the capacity to use it, and that technology could be helpful but equally could hinder those without access to it.

He said the first step was to recognise that burdens are constructed, and made by political or administrative choices, some of which may have been deliberate decisions to make process more or less onerous.

“Only when we acknowledge that, can we put our energy into making them work better.”

He said options to increase take up of programs included changing default process, increasing automatic or opt-out enrolments or better use of administrative data to identify people who were eligible.

“In the USA Social Security is a complex program that feels simple, and this is part of what has made it exceptionally durable and popular. This includes the technological innovation of the social security number which stays with people throughout their life, and is closest thing to a national ID.

“We need a citizen first approach to thinking about processes not a bureaucrat-focused approach.”

Reducing burdens placed on family violence survivors by energy companies

Ms McDowell spoke of the Essential Services Commission’s efforts to identify the needs of victim survivors of family violence and ensure that energy companies changed their systems to address them better.

The ESC oversees the hardship programs that have been compulsory for energy companies in Victoria since 2006 to protect customers in vulnerable circumstances. Its role has been to provide guidance and approve policies, based on the assumption that companies know their own customers best.

In 2013/14, Victoria experienced record disconnections for non-payment of bills, which led to a state government inquiry that uncovered victims of family violence had huge problems, something which was also recognised by the Royal Commission into family violence.

“Our goal was to fundamentally change how energy companies engaged with their customers on this important issue,” she said.

“We addressed this in a unique way – we listened to the people, to the customers, we were seeking to protect. We did this for many months before we even considered developing a consultation paper, and this is how we identified the barriers.”

She said that the key problem was that neither the ESC nor energy companies had recognised family violence as a source of hardship and as a result had not designed systems or processes to support customers experiencing it.

For example it was often difficult for victims to provide evidence to demonstrate such a sensitive situation, a barrier which caused many to walk away. If they were willing to provide evidence they were required to repeat their stories to several different people.

Account systems were not secure and could be used by perpetrators to find out the location of victim/survivors, and staff did not have the training to be supportive or empathetic to victims.

After consultation the ESC developed a framework with the following key aspects:

Family violence recognised as a cause of payment difficulty
Enables access to support without evidence
Stops energy companies revealing details about a customer experiencing family violence
Requires debt collection to be informed by the customer’s family violence circumstances, and cannot promote unsafe outcomes
Requires staff training

Ms McDowell said the result was a major change in how energy companies now dealt with victim survivors of family violence.

“In the majority of situations customers can access support without providing evidence, they can ask for a payment plan or have their account secured, and they are taken at their word.”