Equity by design: 20 versions, 16 people, 8 agencies, 2 weeks, 1 form to prevent evictions

By: Quinn Hirsch & Dana Chisnell

Government forms are not known for being simple.

We are committed to improving the delivery of government services for all Americans. Our role within the Office of Management and Budget at the White House — Quinn at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) and Dana at the United States Digital Service (USDS) — is to do just that.

In response to public health concerns resulting from the global pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) enacted an eviction moratorium. The goal of the moratorium was to prevent an unprecedented wave of evictions that could force people struggling to pay rent — at no fault of their own — into housing situations that would increase the risk of contracting and transmitting COVID-19, such as in shelters or other shared spaces.

To access eviction protections under this moratorium, the CDC requires renters to complete a “declaration” form swearing that they meet the criteria for not being evicted. With over 4 million adults behind on rent as of April 2021, we knew it was important to get this form right so that eligible tenants could easily and quickly access the government protections they were eligible for. A legalistic, dense form could deter eligible tenants out of receiving these protections, or add unnecessary stress for already stressed tenants at risk of eviction. These consequences would disproportionately fall on Black and Hispanic households, who are more than twice as likely to be renters than white households.

In March 2021, we kicked off a cross-agency sprint to improve the eviction moratorium form. Much of this sprint was working to better understanding how tenants and those that work with them used this form. Led by OIRA, the sprint team included lawyers, health and policy experts, and usability testing and design leaders from across the federal government. We utilized existing administrative flexibilities and the usability testing protocol outlined by the General Services Administration (GSA), and kicked off our first live test less than 48 hours after the team was formed.

Usability testing was critical to ensuring that the entire team could interact with those with lived experience. Participants walked through the declaration as if they were using it for themselves, their neighbors or clients. We observed people from across the country and all stages of life, noting where there were questions, confusion, and where users said it wouldn’t be effective. We made changes between each session, and tested over 20 versions over the course of two weeks with 16 different people, including tenants, legal aid lawyers, and tenant advocates.

A few of the many iterations of the declaration form.

Together, we worked through options for changes and agreed on revisions in every debrief. This is a radically different way of working on forms in the U.S. government — normally, there are serial handoffs that can slow momentum. Having everyone in the (virtual) room, observing sessions, seeing the evidence for themselves, sped things up and made the result better for the public.

Within two weeks, we had a final draft.

It wasn’t a total transformation. The details remained the same. But the wording and design made the form more approachable and accessible. The redesign made it easier to understand, at a simpler and more accessible reading level and in plain language, and was up-front about eligibility. Now a single page, the form centered tenants using first person pronouns. It was straightforward, offered best practices, government resources, and access to local experts, and was clear on consequences for landlords. Finally, the form was translated into 11 languages (and counting!) in a collaboration between the CDC, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

It is still a form. It is just one form. But it is a form that can help struggling tenants avoid the risk of spreading COVID-19 today, and now it is clearer and more understandable.

It is already intimidating to be facing down an eviction during a global pandemic. Getting help to stay safe should be straightforward, and through these kinds of collaborations we can make access to government services easier for all.

The best of technology.
The best of government.
And we want you.

We’re looking for the most tenacious designers, software engineers, product managers, and more, who are committed to untangling, rewiring and redesigning critical government services. You’ll join a team of the most talented technologists from across the private sector and government.
If you have questions regarding employment with the U.S. Digital Service, please contact us at usds@omb.eop.gov and visit usds.gov/apply.

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United States Digital Service

United States Digital Service

The U.S. Digital Service is a group of mission-driven professionals who are passionate about delivering better government services to the public.