Ask an Expert: What is Administrative Burden?

| 29 Sep 2022

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Is a simple form really that simple? Apparently not. “Administrative burden” can turn a seemingly simple process into a complex and difficult experience for applicants. UNSW Canberra Public Service Research Group’s Jeremiah Brown explains the impact of administrative burden.  

What is administrative burden?  

Administrative burden is usually defined very generally as an individual’s experience of a policy’s implementation as onerous. Often this is understood through the idea of the costs associated with the administrative process. This can be simple things like an application process being unnecessarily long and difficult to complete. Through to more complicated things like a process having a significant negative emotional impact on a person because it requires them to relive traumatic events. 

What types of administrative burden are there?  

The onerous nature of policy can take different forms, with three types of burden that are commonly experienced: learning costs, compliance costs, and psychological costs.  

Learning costs are the costs associated with learning about a policy and the process required to access the policy. This might be because the policy is hard to find – for example, it might only be accessible through a government website that the person needs to know how to find. Or it might be difficult to know if you are eligible because of the number of requirements and relative ambiguousness about the way the eligibility requirements are assessed.  

Compliance costs are the costs associated with complying with a policy or application process. These can be time based, like the time taken to complete a particularly long application form. Or they can be financial costs, like the costs associated with gaining an expert medical assessment from a specialist that is not covered through Medicare.  

Psychological costs are the psychological costs which can be imposed on people through policy. This can be through things like the negative experiences that can arise for an applicant for a program having to repeatedly explain the impacts of their mental ill health to different people involved in the assessment of their application. Or it could be the psychological costs of accessing a program that is stigmatised in a public way, like recipients of the cashless debit card have talked about experiencing. It can also be the stress and anxiety that comes with the uncertainty around whether support will be given to someone trying to access a program. 

Who is most affected by administrative burden?  

Administrative burden can impact anybody, and it pops up in innocuous ways all the time – think about the last time you filled out a form that was unnecessarily long or complicated. But on the whole the people most negatively impacted by administrative burden tend to be the people most in need of policy support. The reasons for this are varied, but the basic idea underpinning all of them is that the more your lived experience diverges from the standard experience, the more likely you are to encounter parts of policy that are not designed for you. As experiences diverge from the norm, people may have to put in more effort to work out if the policy applies to them (learning costs), experience more difficulty in meeting the costs associated with policy (compliance costs), or need to outline the nature of their difference to help with processes (psychological costs). 

How can we avoid administrative burden?  

Administrative burdens can be difficult to reduce because often they are an inherent feature of the policy in question, and a necessary feature of targeted policies. But one way to reduce administrative burden is to ensure that we pay close attention to what we are really asking people to do to access policies and programs, and minimising our demands on them wherever possible. For some programs a reduction in what is being asked may not be possible, but for others, like the Mutual Obligations requirements for recipients of Job Seeker, the compliance costs are unnecessary requirements that create additional busy work with no benefit to the individual or the wider community. Removing these elements of the program would reduce compliance and psychological costs for recipients, and because they can also be stressful for recipients. 

In a related manner, when people apply for access to programs, are we expecting them to complete everything in the process to proceed, or do we offer them the ability to complete what they can? Being less demanding in application requirements may shift some of the burden back to those implementing policy. 

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