Administrative burdens and citizen (dis)trust

9 Jul

How government decides about policies and their implementation, especially the choices they make that lead to more or less administrative burdens for citizens, impacts on the trust or distrust that citizens will have in government. It leads us to question the deeply held beliefs of  public leaders and professionals about citizens and their trust or distrust in citizens. This is a relatively understudied field of research. The recently published book Administrative Burden (Herd and Moynihan, 2019) provides a good starting pointfor such an analysis, even though it does not explicitly study the impact of administrative burdens on citizen trust or distrust.

In the previous blog I introduced main findings about the impact of government actions on citizen trust in government. This provides the foundation for relating key findings from the book Administrative Burden by professors Pamela Herd and Don Moynihan (Russell Sage Foundation, 2019) to trust and distrust between citizens and government.

What are administrative burdens?

Administrative burdens are the burdens citizens experience as they seek access to public services or want to exercise their rights as citizens. Examples are the burdens that citizens experience when they are eligible to receive welfare benefits such housing, child care or unemployment benefits. Or when they seek to exercise their right to vote, but are facing requirements that only passports can be used as valid voter-ID and they have no need for passports as they never travel abroad.

Why is it important for public leaders to pay attention to administrative burdens?

Herd and Moynihan provide three reasons. First administrative burdens are consequential, they make a real difference to people’s lives. Whether you actually receive the welfare benefits that you are entitled to makes a huge difference to most recipients who are usually poor. Whether you can actually exercise your right to vote impacts how you feel included and respected. When (unnecessary) burdens are imposed, they are often experienced as signalling distrust from government. And, as shown in the previous blog, government performance has a positive effect on citizen trust in government. Is government making a serious effort to ensure that those citizens that a government programme is targeting can actually access the service? Or are they making it unduly difficult?

Second, burdens are distributive, because they tend to reinforce inequalities. It takes effort and skills, and often also money, to navigate the burdens and the poorer and less educated people tend to therefore have more difficulty accessing the services. And in the previous blog we saw that the fairness of government services has an even higher impact on citizen trust in government. When citizens experience government as being unfair, that signals distrust to them and will more likely lead to citizen distrust in return.

Last but not least, burdens are constructed: they are the product of deliberate choice. You have a choice how you design the implementation of the service process; how much you trust the citizen or not. And yes, not all citizens can be trusted, but to then distrust all citizens is a big leap. Someone is trustworthy if they are willing and able to do what you need them to do. And if your trust is violated it makes a big difference if the other person or organization was willing but not able, or able but not willing. When incompetent, the judgment is usually more mild and the violation can more easily be repaired. When on the other hand, the other was unwilling, that is seen as a much more serious breach. So when the government deliberatively chooses to impose administrative burdens that make life harder for citizens and increase inequality, then citizens are more likely to distrust.

What can we do to reduce administrative burdens?

First of all, you can reduce the burdens. For example, trust the citizen when they say they are a legal citizen, without requiring costly documentation or ask for more common documentation like a drivers licence. Or, you can shift the burden from the individual citizen onto the state. In the example of voter rights, check in the citizen registry whether someone is a legal citizen.

An often provided reason for administrative burdens is the important value of being prudent with public money and the need to stop fraud. But those people who are willing to commit fraud, will not hesitate to produce false documentation, while those who are honest face high costs. And actually, in many cases, the government databases that can be used to shift the burden onto the state, are much more difficult to manipulate for fraudsters.

What are the components of administrative burdens?

First the learning costs. How much time and effort does it take to learn about the programme or service? Recently I sat down to apply online for subsidy after the house was insulated. It took me quite some time to figure out the criteria for eligibility – you had to be a house owner-occupant; the nature of the benefits – how much was the subsidy?; the conditions – it had to be at least two measures with minimum volume.  And you had to provide lots of documentation. And finally how to access it – via a reasonably easy to navigate website, but it still required IT skills not everyone has.

Second the compliance costs. What documentation do you need to provide to demonstrate that you are really who you are and really are eligible? In the example of needing a passport as voter-ID, the cost of a passport just to be able to vote is part of compliance costs. Sometimes you have to hire experts to help you navigate the system, for example in more complex planning permission procedures. And in this last example you often get follow-up questions or demands before the government grants you permission or not.

The last component is about the psychological costs of burdens. Stigma, loss of autonomy, the sense of being a case, a number that is being processes through the system; and not a human being. Frustration due to the learning and compliance costs. And finally the stress due to uncertainty of whether you will actually get the benefit and have negotiated all the burdens and barriers successfully. For those on welfare state benefits the stress may be high.
If you want to get a sense of what administrative burdens mean to individuals dependent on welfare benefits, watch the movie I Daniel Blake, with this list of administrative burdens ready to score the ones you can identify.

What is the relevance for public leaders?

Administrative burdens should be part of public leaders’ professional norms, argue Herd and Moynihan. They should be aware of administrative burdens in the programme and services that they are responsible for. To be aware of the concept and how the systems and procedures are designed and implemented with what impact on citizens. To know how the burdens can be minimized, while honouring the public values that are important. Especially the public value monetary prudence and therefore the task to prevent and fight fraud is, as said earlier, often the stated reason for high burdens. By making the burdens visible, from the perspective of the citizen, stimulating the public policy debate to be more transparent and rational should lead to more evidence-based policy-making.

Finally, if making efforts to reduce unnecessary burdens where possible is part of public leaders professional norms, then it is important that they regularly reflect on their own personal values and attitudes towards citizens or the specific group of citizens that they are working for. Do you have a general attitude of trust or distrust towards the target groups you are working for as a public leader or public professional?