Friday, September 05, 2008

Is this helpful?

Time is valuable. Whenever we undertake something, we have to make a brief calculation in our head about whether the time it will take is worthwhile. This is even more the case if you're working freelance or running a business.

That's why quick activities so often get far more people to participate.

The one thing I hate more than anything else at all is bureaucracy. (hopefully you understand that I'm not comparing forms to torture or genocide, I am merely being dramatic). Forms send me spitting feathers all over the place and whining like a teenager as I scrawl half-heartedly on the stupid boxes and ratings. It's only slightly better if somebody fills in the form with me.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, how dehumanised does this form make you feel?"

That's a question you rarely see.

I'm not dyslexic, but I am left-handed, so there are parts of forms that I tend to miss out because I didn't see them. I find filling them in genuinely stressful and very time-consuming. I tend to get suspicious of the usefulness of the form the longer it goes on. I start to think evil thoughts about the people who created the form. I wonder at the expense of entering data that I know for a fact is already in their overstuffed servers and wandering memory sticks. Very often, I give up, unless given another biscuit or told I can't leave the room till it's done.

More than anything, I resent the fact that part of my interactions with government bureaucracy are because I'm someone in need of 'help'. The only reason I sign or fill in the bloody things at all is because I have been part of various government schemes that have really helped me and normally there is a wonderful person on the end of the form saying "Sorry about this, but it's for the funders". Because I have been through different schemes with differing levels of bureaucracy, I know that evaluation is applied differently.

I obviously see the value of evaluation and the necessity for monitoring. A bit of reflection on your work by an impartial observer is also often very useful. Even the need to demonstrate value for money, except that I think this very often destroys actual value in the process of spreading your money as thin as it can go. I don't like the fact that because I don't have my own money to do whatever I like, I have to trade personal details for help. I would rather spend that time doing something of value instead.

I'm becoming convinced that nearly all the time-consuming evaluation could be replaced by one simple question:

"Was this helpful?"

Yes or no.

If this question was applied at the end of every interaction by a publicly-funded person, or added to the end of every web page funded by a government scheme, then we would very quickly have a body of evidence to say what is helping people most and what isn't. In other words, what works. Suggestions and refinements can always come later, with the time freed up by not having to fill in stupid forms.

Two examples:

You spend four days supplying excessive amounts of information for a branding grant that, ultimately, you were rejected for because you were the wrong sort of business (even though you had checked beforehand and your intermediary had been given the wrong information).

Was this helpful?


(now, isn't that quicker than composing endless vitriolic letters and complaining to everyone you meet?)

You had a conversation with someone you know at the council who told you you would probably be eligible for a refurbishment grant on your house that you hadn't heard about before and then asked the person running the scheme to call you. You were eligible, so you got the grant.

Was this helpful?


One of these examples wasted stupid amounts of unpaid time and contributed absolutely nothing to government outputs. The other contributed to outputs and ensured that someone in need got something they were entitled to. The difference is in the time people are allowed to have conversations with people.

Particularly in areas where online access is low, you can forget connecting with people if you're not released from your desk to speak to people. Conversations are extremely valuable. Information can be passed on and put into context. Conversations layer on each other. Most people are more likely to take action because of a conversation, or even several conversations, than they are from websites, mailshots or even newspapers. Certainly, these add to the mix and are vital to ensure you are getting accurate information and have something to refer to, but that is combined with the spark that made you look at them in the first place.

Call conversations, if you like, the Twitter feeds of real life and you might appreciate the importance of conversations once again. Journalists, take note.

I've gone off on a bit of a tangent, but when they release the next competition to do something clever to make government work better, this will be my suggestion. Wipe out every form with more than two fields and replace it with the name of the project/person/odd new computer system in a waiting room/paper-based information given to people, a name (if you must) and a yes or no answer.

Feed it into a central space and...

We might suddenly find out what's working.


Jess said...

I agree! Only, I would expand your all-purpose form to two questions:

Was this helpful?


Any other comments?

(I like to be able to give specifics if the need arises.)

Martin Donkin said...

My sympathies. I work in immigration, which is form hell. Tell me that this form doesn't send a cold shiver down your spine: