Sunstein’s Solution for Simplified Federal Forms: Focus Group Them

Photograph by AP Photo

Cass Sunstein, Director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget.

The government is taking another stab at making the complex more simple.

Cass Sunstein, leaving his office today as the nation’s top regulatory official in President Barack Obama’s White House, issued an order to federal agencies to simplify government forms for permits, licenses, grants, taxes or benefits.

Many times these forms “are too confusing and complicated, especially for individuals and small businesses. Today we are doing something about that problem,” said Sunstein, who last week announced he’s returning to Harvard Law School.

Henceforth, he wrote in a blog yesterday, government agencies must “test complex or lengthy forms in advance by seeing if people can actually understand them.”

How to do that?

Sunstein suggests forms be tested by “focus groups” or through “Web-based experiments” or “in-person observations.”

Uncle Sam’s been in the so-called “plain English” movement for at least 40 years.

President Richard Nixon ordered in 1972 that the Federal Register be written in “layman’s terms.” President Jimmy Carter issued an executive order to “make federal regulations clearer, less burdensome and more cost effective.”

President Ronald Reagan’s Commerce Secretary, Malcolm Baldrige, wrestled against inflated language, inscrutable legalisms and sheer verbosity. He even hired plain-English consultants. Vice President Al Gore in 1998 renewed the pledge as part of his “reinventing government” campaign.

Still, we give credit where credit is due.

We wish Sunstein and his successor well, and the entire Obama administration the best of luck with this.

That much is clear.



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