As American as Paperwork

by Conor Friedersdorf

What must a federal bureaucrat do to abolish an unnecessary form?

Standard Form 152 is not a famous federal form like the Internal Revenue Service’s 1040. But for more than four decades, it has been assigned the job of standing sentry over other federal forms.

Agencies that want to create, kill or amend federal forms often have to fill out an SF152, also known as a “Request for Clearance or Cancellation of a Standard or Optional Form,” or file another form just like it.

In other words, the SF152 is a federal form that begets other federal forms a dispenser from which red tape first flows.

So begins a piece by Alison Leigh Cowan that capably documents the absurd paperwork situation in the federal government. How bad is it? "Last year, Americans spent nearly 10 billion hours filling out more than 8,000 different government forms and other official requests for information tracked by the federal budget office," she writes. "That compares with roughly one billion hours spent on similar paperwork in 1981..." An alarming increase!

Nor is government paperwork (and the digital equivalent) the only problem. Consumers are similarly bombarded. Ever tried to read a whole cell phone contract or credit card agreement or warranty? What percentage of words you've signed your name below have you actually read?

It is similarly laughable to imagine that any normal citizen could read all the laws passed by Congress in a given year. In fact, many Americans would have a difficult time getting through the ordinances passed by their municipalities -- reason enough to consider the proposition that "perhaps what America needs is an authority whose sole job is to get rid of outdated, ill-conceived, or just plain bad laws."

More broadly, American society needs to better understand the costs of proliferating paperwork so that it can be weighed against the benefits of creating ever more forms to be filed. That consciousness must precede any effectual effort at reform, or so it seems from the many ineffectual bygone attempts. I wonder if Dish readers have any non-obvious anecdotes that illustrate the costs of paperwork (or else heretofore untried reform ideas).