Agencies’ paperwork burden on the public too high, GAO says

Americans are spending more time and effort filling out forms for the federal government, despite a 1980 law designed to reduce the burden of paperwork on the public, according to the General Accounting Office. The paperwork burden imposed on people by the government has mushroomed over the past five years, said J. Christopher Mihm, director of strategic issues at the General Accounting Office, during a hearing last week before a House Government Reform subcommittee. The American public's federal paperwork grew by nearly 180 million "burden" hours during fiscal 2000, the second largest increase since Congress passed the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, which amended the 1980 law. "Information collection is one way that agencies accomplish their missions and protect public health and safety. Nevertheless, we do not believe that the goals of information collection and compliance with the [Paperwork Reduction Act]'s requirements are inconsistent," said Mihm. The total number of burden hours now stands at about 7.4 billion, said Mihm. At the end of fiscal 1995, before the passage of the 1995 Paperwork Reduction Act, agencies estimated that their information collections imposed about 7 billion burden hours on the public, he said. A burden hour is the measurement used to estimate the amount of time and expense it takes for people to fill out agency forms, reports and other types of paperwork for the government. Agencies compute their paperwork in burden hours. Burden-hour estimates are classified as either "program changes" or "adjustments," explained Mihm. A program change occurs when the government takes deliberate action, such as the IRS adding or deleting questions to a tax form. Adjustments, on the other hand, are not caused by a deliberate government action. For example, if the economy declined, causing more people to fill out applications for food stamps, the increase in the Agriculture Department's paperwork estimate would not be due to a direct action by the government. The Paperwork Reduction Acts of 1980 and 1995 require agencies to reduce the public's burden of providing information to the government by cutting back on unnecessary paperwork. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) within the Office of Management and Budget oversees agencies' compliance with the law, and agencies must receive approval from OIRA for each information request before it is implemented. Mihm said the IRS accounted for about 83 percent of the governmentwide burden-hour estimate, due mainly to changes on the agency's 1040 and 1040A tax forms and the additional worksheets and instructions provided for filling out those forms. The Commerce Department also saw a sharp increase in the number of paperwork hours it imposed on the public because of the 2000 census. Commerce's numbers jumped from about 14 million hours in fiscal 1999 to more than 38 million hours in fiscal 2000. Federal agencies identified 487 violations of the Paperwork Reduction Act during fiscal 2000, down from 710 in fiscal 1999. However, Mihm, said the fiscal 2000 number still represents too many violations for one year and that the decrease is "hardly a cause for celebration." Mihm urged OIRA to make more of an effort to ensure that agencies comply with the law. He suggested OIRA notify the budget side of OMB and the public through the Federal Register when agencies violate the Paperwork Reduction Act.
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