Bureaucracy, confusing paperwork, and complex regulations—or what public policy scholars Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan call administrative burdens—often introduce delay and frustration into our experiences with government agencies. Administrative burdens diminish the effectiveness of public programs and can even block individuals from fundamental rights like voting. In Administrative Burden, Herd and Moynihan document that the administrative burdens citizens regularly encounter in their interactions with the state are not simply unintended byproducts of governance, but the result of deliberate policy choices. Because burdens affect people’s perceptions of government and often perpetuate long-standing inequalities, understanding why administrative burdens exist and how they can be reduced is essential for maintaining a healthy public sector.
Through in-depth case studies of federal programs and controversial legislation, the authors show that administrative burdens are the nuts-and-bolts of policy design. Regarding controversial issues such as voter enfranchisement or abortion rights, lawmakers often use administrative burdens to limit access to rights or services they oppose. For instance, legislators have implemented administrative burdens such as complicated registration requirements and strict voter-identification laws to suppress turnout of African American voters. Similarly, the right to an abortion is legally protected, but many states require women seeking abortions to comply with burdens such as mandatory waiting periods, ultrasounds, and scripted counseling. As Herd and Moynihan demonstrate, administrative burdens often disproportionately affect the disadvantaged who lack the resources to deal with the financial and psychological costs of navigating these obstacles.
However, policymakers have sometimes reduced administrative burdens or shifted them away from citizens and onto the government. One example is Social Security, which early administrators of the program implemented in the 1930s with the goal of minimizing burdens for beneficiaries. As a result, the take-up rate is about 100 percent because the Social Security Administration keeps track of peoples’ earnings for them, automatically calculates benefits and eligibility, and simply requires an easy online enrollment or visiting one of 1,200 field offices. Making more programs and public services operate this efficiently, the authors argue, requires adoption of a nonpartisan, evidence-based metric for determining when and how to institute administrative burdens, with a bias toward reducing them. By ensuring that the public’s interaction with government is no more onerous than it need be, policymakers and administrators can reduce inequality, boost civic engagement, and build an efficient state that works for all citizens.
PAMELA HERD is a professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.
DONALD MOYNIHAN is the inaugural McCourt Chair in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.