Forming the Future

Our first-ever FormFest event showcased all the ways we can build better government, one form at a time
an illustration of a person holding a form

Have you ever thought about the fact that nearly every interaction you have with government requires filling out a form? A form may seem like a boring piece of paperwork, but it actually serves as a critical gateway to government services.

Last week Code for America and the Beeck Center for Social Impact at Georgetown University hosted FormFest, a virtual event all about how better form design can make public services more accessible, efficient, and equitable. Together with almost 2,000 registrants from 25 countries, we envisioned a future where forms are more intuitive and less burdensome for people who need to apply for government services, and one where forms are easier for people working in government to create, promote, and process for clients.

As our keynote speaker Mina Hsiang, Administrator of the United States Digital Service, reminded us: only 2% of government forms are currently digitized. That means there’s a huge opportunity to improve the delivery of government services through the power of well-designed, accessible forms. 

As it stands, most forms in government are static and used to make rules-based determinations. There’s a one-way flow of information, and the feedback loop is asynchronous and delayed. In the private sector, we can see examples of forms where technology has significantly improved the user experience—think about how Shopify synchronizes and streamlines the online shopping experience while eliminating individual forms from millions of websites. 

“There’s a tremendous opportunity to overall improve the experience of government services, and it all starts with how we think about interacting with the public, how we think about the exchange of information, and how we can evolve from a one-way form into a more comprehensive, bi-directional, and iterative way of engaging and having a conversation that meets people where they are and takes advantage of technological benefits.”
Mina Hsiang, Administrator of the United States Digital Service

At FormFest, we talked about how we can bring that spirit of innovation to government, using well-designed forms that start conversations between two parties, one where both sides get the right information they need to move forward with a process. It’s those types of forms that can dramatically improve the experience of interacting with government and can start to build more trust in government service delivery. 

One of the most exciting parts of FormFest was the collaboration. Government teams from all over the United States, and five countries, including the UK, Canada, France, and New Zealand, shared how they’re thinking about forms—from high level overviews of drag-and-drop form creation platforms they’ve made to empower everyone in government (especially people without coding backgrounds) to make forms, to in-the-weeds review of plain language resources for practical usability. We spent time together nerding out over web accessibility standards, the challenges of getting clean data, and the responsibility to consider diversity, equity, and inclusion while building for a broad audience. 

Many presenters shared that the form changes they make feel minor in the moment—but as Code for America CEO Amanda Renteria noted, government forms are some of the most important documents a person might ever fill out, so improving them can make an enormous difference, even if it feels like a small change. “I can see the potential,” she said. “What it actually means for people trying to make their way through [these forms] applying for benefits, citizenship, everything else.”

She was echoed by Caroline Jarrett, a forms and survey specialist for Effortmark Ltd. “It just makes a lot of people’s lives that little bit easier,” she said in the closing session. “Let’s recognize that it can feel very tough, it can feel very different, but we do have the potential to work together to change people’s lives for the better, and not that many people can go to work every day with that ambition.” 

Check out all the recordings from FormFest on our YouTube channel. 

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