Why government online services should be web forms and not PDFs

November 28, 2018

Government in part exists is to provide services to citizens. These services should be easy as possible to find and use.

Unfortunately, many government "online services" are still PDF documents that people need to download, complete and mail, email or drop off in person.

That's the uncomplicated part.

What makes a PDF complicated is that they are very easy to get wrong. Unless created with sufficient care, PDF forms are hard to understand, difficult to use and generate a lot of wasted time both for citizens and staff.

Before we go any further: A definition of government online services

For the purposes of this article and following the standard set by Government of Yukon, online services are transactional services.

These are services where the transaction results in a change to the records held by government. A transactional service typically involves an exchange of information, money, licence, permit and/or goods.

Examples of transactional services:

  • Pay a government invoice
  • Renew a vehicle registration
  • Get a birth certificate
  • Request court information

Okay, now onto the rest.

Problems with PDF for government online services

They are hard to understand

PDF forms tend to be written in complex government-speak and use internal jargon to refer to important information.

They also are prone to use shortened words to save space on the page. As such, PDFs cannot provide the necessary context and clear, plainly written instructions to the citizen.

It's sometimes necessary, but not always for citizens to contact or visit the government to ask for help when filling out a PDF form. The more people that do this, the more time and effort it takes for both groups.

They result in more work for everyone

Citizens sometimes fill out the wrong form(s) and send that to the government. After an employee reviews the application, they have to manually follow-up with the person and re-direct them to a different form or series of forms. This requires extra effort for both people.

Even if citizens fill out the right form, they sometimes send it with incorrect or missing information. Again, an employee has to review their application and if mistakes are found, contact that person to collect the details.

Sometimes employees can't read what a citizen has written or attached, and have to confirm what they entered or wrote.

Some services require that a citizen fill out multiple PDFs—I've seen up to six PDFs for one type of application—to apply for something. This creates a very long and intimidating process for citizens to understand and follow.

They are not accessible

The accessibility of a PDF depends on how it was made. It needs to have a logical structure and design in order to be accessible.

Even if this work was done according to best practices, differences in computer (for example, tablets, screen readers and mobile phones) operating systems, web browsers and devices create issues that can be hard to troubleshoot and fix.

They are less likely to be kept current

After a PDF has been published, its version is set. This can create broken links to the old version that may have been at a different address.

Citizens are also more likely to download a PDF and refer to and share it offline. They may not expect the content in a PDF to change and may not check the government website for the latest version.

They are inefficient for collecting and sharing information

PDF forms are not smart.

A PDF cannot adapt to questions or answers that directly relate to a citizen and their specific case. This creates lengthy, complex forms that take a lot of time and concentration to get through.

Even if they are received as an email message, PDF submissions often need to be re-typed (and in some cases, re-typed several times) into other internal systems for further processing.

What we need to do to help

Publish standards and guidelines

We need to publish guidelines for how to create simple and clear, but still legally-compliant web forms for government online services. We already and will continue to do this.

Provide staff with easy-to-use web form builder tools

We need to supply easy-to-use tools for employees to create smart web forms instead of PDFs. We are building this right now.

Put into place better workflow software and processes

We need to provide software and processes for information from web forms to be submitted and processed, all digitally. This is a big, ongoing problem we will continue to work on and resolve with other internal groups.

The effort of manual follow-up should be reserved for special cases and citizens who truly need help. These situations will always exist no matter how well a service is designed.