Joe Tomlinson & Jed Meers: #FreeTheForms

In the UK, government application forms are one of the primary gateways through which people access their legal entitlements. If an individual is applying for a social security benefit, for a service from their local authority, or seeks a particular immigration status, they will almost certainly be given an application form to complete. Applicants are typically required to navigate through a gauntlet of questions, checklists, and tick boxes to furnish the public official who—or, increasingly, the computer system that—picks up the form with the necessary information to make a decision.

These application forms may appear to be the pinnacle of bureaucratic mundanity, but it is vitally important that they are generally transparent and accessible to the public for a range of reasons. One such reason is that forms can—and do—cause things to go wrong.

Long and complex application forms can be a significant “administrative burden” for claimants. So much so, they can compound existing inequalities in access to state support or form a “sludge” that deters people from even asking for their entitlements in the first place.

Even when forms are fully completed by an applicant, the design of forms can seek information in a way that could harm the applicant. The questions they ask matter. For instance, application forms have been found to impose exhaustive criteria when they are not required, invite an applicant to disclose irrelevant considerations, or constrain responses through tied evidential requirements. These matters are, of course, issues of poor form design, but they can also be more than that; they can create systemic barriers to accessing legal entitlements and, in some instances, forms themselves may be unlawful.

The transparency of application forms remains important even when forms are designed well. Advisors, for instance, often want access to the full version of forms so they can adequately support their clients through a process.

In a previous era when paper application forms dominated, transparency was less of an issue. Generally, you could pick a form up and read it. However, application forms are increasingly being moved online, both in central Government and other public agencies. Shifting to online forms is appealing to public authorities seeking to improve the speed and cost of administration. So much so that a series of companies now specialise in providing these online application processes for public bodies. The market leader – Team Netsol Limited – outline a series of key benefits of shifting paper forms online. However, any benefits gained are Janus-faced, with any improvements in efficiency tied to transparency concerns.

First, online forms can offer what Netsol limited calls an “optimised question process based on customer circumstances.” This means that the form an applicant sees will depend on their answers to the questions. This is the digital reincarnation of “if you answered ‘no’ to question A, skip to question D,” but without seeing questions B and C. The potential number of different forms experienced for the same entitlement can be manifold, given how long some forms are. By way of illustration, Sandwell Council’s online form for determining eligibility for their Council Tax Reduction Scheme (a form of support that has replaced council tax benefit) has a total of at least 37 separate screens to complete, each shown only after completing the former. The Department for Work and Pensions once refused a Freedom of Information Act request for public access to the questions that may be asked as part of an online form on the basis that it would take them too long to process the request.

Second, online forms can “reduce not-entitled application processing”. This means that those seemingly ineligible for a particular entitlement or not able to pass other validation tests (such as proof of ID) can be prevented from even accessing the complete application form in the first place, let alone completing an application. This has a series of practical consequences. First, online forms often prevent you from progressing to the next screen without providing valid data such as a national insurance number, UK address, etc. Without providing this information, you cannot access the full form. To give two quite different illustrations, it is common for Local Authorities to adopt online-only applications for school places, where – to take Kirklees Council as an example – you must enter a series of details into the “Kirklees Parents Portal” before progressing to the application form. Or applicants to the Ukraine Family Scheme must navigate a series of preliminary questions about them and their family members before seeing any of the remaining questions on the form. This makes it more difficult for non-applicants – such as those in the advice sector – to access the complete forms, or delays (or even prevents) those without easy access to relevant information from progressing with the application. Second, it raises the stakes of the application form from a mere container of pertinent information for a subsequent decision-maker to an active pre-screening process for applications. If an applicant cannot identify a relevant reference number or information, they cannot progress with their application; the form itself prevents them from doing so.

Third, online application processes seek to “eradicate paper forms and reduce follow-on correspondence,” relying on “customer self-service.” This means that application processes are increasingly moving not just to “online-by-default” but “online-only.” This raises significant concerns about digital exclusion in application processes. To date, these arguments have been best interrogated in the context of Universal Credit but the same principles apply to any application process where forms are available online-only with limited or non-existent offline support. A lack of engagement with a decision-maker makes the design of these online forms even more acute as it is significantly harder to raise circumstances not captured in the pre-determined questions and boxes.

The upshot of these trends is that, despite a range of legitimate reasons underpinning the need for general transparency, government application forms are increasingly kept out of public sight by virtue of digitalisation, personalisation, and a drive for efficiency. We think this emerging status quo is regressive and should not be allowed to consolidate without proper debate. The path towards good government here is transparency by default unless there is a compelling reason not to disclose the full details of a particular form. The current path is one where the public is left in the dark, citizens are disadvantaged, and there will likely be a growing number of unnecessary disclosure disputes centred on forms.

Dr Joe Tomlinson is a Senior Lecturer in Public Law at the University of York.

Dr Jed Meers is a Lecturer in Law at the University of York.

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