# Cause Area Proposal: Paperwork Reduction

#### Published: 08/08/2022

Editors note: This is was written as a submission for Open Philanthropy Cause Exploration Prize. It's crossposted to the EA Forum where the formatting is a little better. I've long been anti-paperwork so hopefully this piece will affect some change. I wouldn't say I'm optimistic though.

Introduction

Over the past century the collection of paperwork has become more efficient due to the development and widespread use of computers. But thanks to Jevon's Paradox this increased efficiency has led not to a decrease in the amount of time spent on paperwork and administrative tasks but a vast increase [1]. Some of this is socially desirable as during this period search and storage of records have also become cheaper so collected information is more valuable. But I will argue that the scale of human time loss to record keeping is absolutely staggering and constitutes a morally pressing human tragedy. I will also give a few ideas to reduce the quantity of paperwork which will range from specific low hanging fruit to pie in the sky.

This problem is neglected because the proliferation of paperwork is a fundamentally unsexy problem. No one is obviously dying. The high agency people most capable of changing the system are also the people most likely to outsource paperwork or have enough executive function to not see it as a huge drag.

These are problems committed utilitarians would take more seriously. I would argue 100 million people spend an hour watching an ineffective diversity training video they don't want to watch is a moral tragedy on the order of 150 people dying, but this is likely a minority view.

# Quantifying the Problem

I will give cost estimates in dollars or hours as opposed to DALYs. This is because the primary cost of paperwork is the opportunity cost. Everyone doing paperwork could have done useful work instead. Dollar estimates will allow the reader to easily compare the cost to other wastes.

There's also the question of how many DALYs are lost to a day of doing paperwork i.e. how painful is it to do paperwork? My sense is most people find even simple paperwork tasks quite painful. For myself I'd say a day spent doing paperwork and administrative tasks is less than half as valuable to me as a normal day. It seems people start complaining about filing taxes months in advance. It's possible I only hear the complainers and the median person is more ambivalent. But I think a day of paperwork equaling 0.5 DALYs is not a crazy starting point. However I won't use this for two reasons:

1. I don't have any data to back it up.

2. Most eliminated paperwork will likely be replaced with some other form of work so there won't necessarily be a DALY gain. But hopefully there is a productivity gain and those gains will produce DALYs down the line.

# Scale of the Problem

I'll give three types of paperwork with a rough quantification of their dollar or time cost followed by a few more personal examples which sadden me.

## Workplace Diversity Training

There is little evidence these trainings even work. This Matt Yglesias blog likely isn't the best source but good luck finding a source which does show they work with any given level of rigor or meaningful effect size. I'd estimate they consume two hours of most American worker and college students' lives every year for an annual cost of at least a 100 million hours.

## Anecdotes/Miscellaneous

• Professors on Workday. This is an anecdote from my wife at the OSU. There's software called workday which professors use to order materials they need for their research. There is a weekly seminar where professors meet just to discuss how to use it. There was a full day training for it. This case really saddens me because presumably these people's time would be very valuably spent on research.
• Social Worker at the NICU. Recently I had a baby in the NICU. Naturally this is extremely expensive and also naturally no one actually expects you to pay. There was a women whose full time job was to walk us through the intricacies of our insurance, medicaid, and some Ohio specific programs we were eligible for due to our daughter's birth weight.
• When I was a grad student at OSU summer stipends were paid hourly. But there was a precise dollar amount they intended to pay you. So every week every grad student had to fill out a form with the same hours, so someone else could approve it, so they could send the money we'd agreed to. Pointless!
• I suspect Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) and building regulations might be an even larger source of pointless paperwork than medicine but I'm not sure how to quantify or fight it. Hopefully the YIMBY people have it covered.

# Can Philanthropy Help

In most instances of excessive paperwork (and I guess any other tragedy) there are two questions to consider before philanthropic giving:

1. Why hasn't the free market already handled this?

2. If this tragedy is caused by a more powerful agent e.g. a government, do we actually have any agency to stop it?

## Why not the Free Market?

The market does create innovative reductions in paperwork. In an earlier draft I proposed phones as ez passes but that's already happening. Subways are beginning to accept apple/google/etc. pay and AI powered automatic checkout is maybe beginning to actually happen, 20 years late. All these changes may have happened faster if the externality if time in checkout was priced in. But to compete with faster or more convenient options like other roads, taxis or internet shopping there is incentive to eventually develop these technologies.

But the market can also proliferate paperwork in some contexts. For instance by allowing online sign up but requiring a phone call to cancel. Or with mail in rebates or store specific credit cards. Companies will often use paperwork as a form of friction to prevent consumers from doing what the company doesn't want them to do, while making the desired action as close to one click as possible. Luckily some progress is being made on this front as California has made it illegal to offer online sign up but not cancellation. Somewhat amazingly the NYT offers their online cancellation through chat instead of just offering a button.

The market doesn't fully price in time wasting externalities. If a store found some way to reduce checkout times in half they'd save many customer hours. But the store would capture very little of this huge savings. Customers would appreciate this but things like store proximity and product preference would still be much larger factors in consumer choice so on the margin this innovation would likely only increase revenue slightly.

## The Government

Perhaps the largest source of paperwork is the government. Medical paperwork is often complicated because of schizophrenic and countless laws and regulations. Taxes are a huge source of paperwork. There seems to be little desire to change this state of affairs. Values like security, privacy and equity all seem to win out against an unbounded amount of convenience.

I have basically no mental model of how to change policy or how effective lobbying is. The most valuable policies from a paperwork perspective, universal healthcare and switching our tax base from income [6] to land (Georgism) both seem politically impossible. There are some marginal policies, like automatic W-2 filing and requiring one click cancellation to be offered for services with one click subscription, which seem possible.

# Cultural Change

This is likely my most pie in the sky proposal but it seems many of these tragedies happen because when people making decisions for other people trade one value off for convenience they choose the other value even when the total value of the convenience amounts to many lifetimes. I appreciated Bryan Caplan's impassioned blog on the subject. Changing the culture so that people value convenience higher may be impossible but it could be worth brainstorming ideas.

The real tragedy seems to be other people making up values that in practice you can see people value little but rhetorically win out against convenience. We're in the middle of a decades long media attack campaign on tech. They accuse them of things like:

1. Violating our privacy by collecting data.

2. Being monopolies

To be clear I don't want to say there is no merit to these critiques or that large tech organizations couldn't be better. But at the end of the day I can get any product to my door in 2 days likely for less (inflation adjusted) than I could have two decades ago and I can talk to anyone I've ever met with just a few clicks. The time savings of these services vastly outweighs their externalities. I don't think it's impossible to design regulations which prevent the externalities without damaging the convenience. But historical regulations should make us skeptical of our government's ability to do this.

# Specific proposals

Saying we should reduce paperwork is sort of like saying we should improve health. Obviously yes, but are the marginal ideas any good? In this section I have some concrete proposals. Unfortunately I don't have any good and tractable ideas for medical paperwork which seems like the most dire source. My most concrete proposals have to do with adding features to browsers. This may not sound exciting but I think there are millions of hours that could be saved annually with even small modifications.

• Improving the chrome autofill feature
• A lot of paperwork is filled out with a web browser. The default chrome autofill is often amazingly bad. Google chrome will save your addresses but it will never learn which ones are actually most useful. And if you go to your autofill settings there is no way to reorder them. The only options are edit and delete. The first address Chrome suggests for me is still the apartment I lived in right after college. Chromium is open source and I suspect a thoughtful pull request here (I'd guess it could be done with 100 hours of work) could save millions of hours annually.
• Somehow get more people to use chrome's built in password manager or use a third party one. I know a lot of people who out of vague concern for "privacy" or "security" don't click the "save password" button in their web browser. This is the tragedy vague media fear mongering about those buzz words has wrought.
• Fight password reset and two factor authentication policies
• It's already best practice to not enforce password resets, but many universities, such as OSU, still require them. Just lobbying OSU to stop this practice would save 120,000 people about 20 minutes a year. So if someone could do it in 40 hours they'd clear Open Philanthropy's 1000x bar. The difficult part is probably knowing the right person to talk to.
• Two factor authentication actually improves security but I think on the margin there's too much of it. Sessions should have longer time outs before they ask you to re-authenticate.
• Many websites want you to verify your e-mail and phone when you make a new account. This is a labor intensive process where you have to wait for an e-mail copy the code and paste it into a new box. But almost always I use the same e-mail which my browser already knows because I'm logged in with it. Perhaps we could make a new browser API by which a site could ask if an e-mail is confirmed by the current user. Or to preserve privacy the site could ask for your primary e-mail with a similar flow through which sites can currently request your location or webcam.
• Automatic W-2 tax filing.
• This policy is a real no brainer and is starting to get some popular support.
• Lobbying for this could be helpful but I suspect the marginal dollar has little value.
• Repeal GDPR and/or raise awareness of auto-dismissing plugins. No doubt billions of hours annually are spent looking at and dismissing cookie consent buttons. 42% of internet users use an ad blocker but cookie consent dismissal plugins have less market penetration.
• Universal Healthcare.
• Unfortunately even physicians in countries with universal healthcare have quite high paperwork burdens. The linked study laments that UK doctors spend 10 hours a week on bureaucracy. But this is still less than is spent by doctors in America.
• Something I didn't quantify is the patient burden of medical paperwork which is also considerable and would be even more significantly reduced by universal healthcare.
• Unfortunately it seems very hard to push the football of healthcare in any direction in America.
• I wonder if democrats could do better if they focused their messaging on reducing paperwork as opposed to equity. It would likely poll worse with their base but might convince other people.
• Find a large company that's willing to stop holding diversity trainings and fund its legal defense.
• It's hard to know the cost of the legal defense but the ACLU has an annual budget of 300 million and filed 56 lawsuits in 2017 so I think 6 million is a reasonable estimate. As 100 million hours are lost every year, for a total cost of ~\$10 billion over the next decade this would easily pass Open Philanthropy's 1000x bar.
• There are no laws saying companies must require these trainings and it seems they have become so universal as a liability mitigating device. But how can a practice with no evidence for its effectiveness actually serve as a legal shield? A danger of this approach is that courts actually will rule this practice with no evidence of effectiveness actually is required.
• An alternative approach may be to lobby for regulatory clarity from the government about whether diversity training is required or not.

# Conclusion

Thank you for considering my proposal. Paperwork is one of those things that too often we accept as inevitable or necessary. Often we think of these costs as trivial but in my own life I hear people complaining more about medical paperwork than health and more about having to fill out their taxes than their taxes taking away more than a fifth of their income [7]. There is an incredible amount of avoidable psychic pain that is inflicted on people by these vast bureaucracies. Unfortunately the small solutions I suggest don't even come close to eliminating 10% of the problem but I believe on the margin their return is well worth it. Hopefully considering these problems will encourage people to think of more ambitious complete solutions.

[1] Note I'm not going to defend carefully the claim that things have gotten worse on this front over the past century. Just that the present scale of the problem is large enough that philanthropic work would be justified.

[2] The full document is unfortunately paywalled

[3] Note this Washington post article links to a nerd wallet page which has no citation.

[4] Note the link only counts private nonfarm employees so this is rough

[5] Note there is likely a correlation between how much someone is paid and how complicated their taxes are. There's probably also a truncation effect where the most highly paid people are the most likely to hire someone to take care of it.

[6] All transactions are someone's income so taxing income has the effect of making all transactions taxable events. I can't think of a worse tax policy from a paperwork perspective.

[7] I think this is mostly due to me being a rather fortunate person and paperwork being a less personal problem than health and finances so people talk about it more. But I think it's at least a little suggestive.