Durham Extreme Makeover: Government Forms Edition

As Triangle J Council of Governments counts down to the kick-off of the Innovation Sandbox Series on Recruitment and Retention of Law Enforcement in January 2019, we wanted to take an opportunity to highlight the innovation that is already happening in our member communities. First up… the City of Durham and Durham County. Check out how they are tackling hard-to-understand government forms below. 

“We want the best government forms in Durham. Period.”

On a brisk Wednesday evening in October, something really exciting was happening in the Innovation Lab at Durham City Hall… Government forms were getting a total facelift with the help of behavioral science! The City of Durham’s Innovation Team teamed up with partners from Durham County Strategic Initiatives Office and Duke’s Center for Advanced Hindsight (CAH) to host a three-hour workshop to make government forms easier, simpler, and less confusing.


Fueled by pizza, over forty participants joined from local graduate school programs, civic organizations, and the greater Durham community to learn about behavioral economics and redesign commonly used local government forms together. Joseph Sherlock, a senior behavioral researcher from CAH, shared four key tips in a quick training before participants dug into redesigning forms with pen and paper:

  1. Keep it simple – Less is definitely more with form design. Think about breaking up or avoiding large chunks of text and instructions.
  2. Think carefully about layout – Make it clear where you want users to respond and provide information. Headers and formatting can go a long way in helping direct the user’s attention.
  3. Set the default – Identify areas in the form where we can help the user make decisions and default them into the most common or best choice for them.
  4. Give clear instructions – Use actions steps where possible to help people follow the flow of the form and ensure they have met all requirements.

Participants were then introduced to the four forms up for a facelift that evening. These included a form used by small and local businesses to apply for certification with the City’s small and local business enterprise program; a form used by residents to sign up for yard waste collection services; a form used by residents to register for a permit to build volunteer structures in City parks; and a form used by anyone looking to get a copy of a birth, death, or marriage certificate from Durham County. From there, participants self-selected to work on the form of their choosing and for over an hour took time learning about the form, brainstorming how it could be better, and using the four key tips designed prototypes of entirely new forms using pen and paper. The energy was infectious throughout the room as participants were cutting old forms with scissors, drawing icons of park benches and flowers in vases, and thinking about all the possibilities of a newly designed form. Overall, the event demonstrated the power of getting residents and government staff in a room with one another to design solutions together.



Overall, there were a few key takeaways from the inaugural (Re)Form Durham event. First, City and County departments were vulnerable and gracious to allow people, who don’t know a whole lot about what they do, to take a stab at tearing up their form and redesigning it with potentially limited knowledge on the topic. The (Re)Form movement would not have been possible without our collaborators from City of Durham Equal Opportunity Equity Assurance Office, Solid Waste Department, Parks and Recreation Department, and Durham County Register of Deeds department.

Sample Form
A new yard waste pick-up application

Secondly, and maybe most importantly, innovation doesn’t mean new technology and long hours of training from Google and Harvard. (Re)Form Durham demonstrated that with some basic tips and tricks, innovation can happen the “old school” way with people who are willing to look at something different and brainstorm new ideas on how it can be made better with pen and paper.

For more information on the (Re)Form Durham event visit the ‘Side Hustle’ menu on the City of Durham’s Innovation Team’s website at www.durhamiteam.org/sidehustles.

Have a story of how your community is being innovative in a big or small way? We want to hear about it and share your story! Email Alana Keegan at akeegan@tjcog.org.

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