Informing citizens about rules and regulations

In 1980, Carel Jansen and I investigated the comprehensibility of the public information brochure about Individual Rent Subsidy, issued by the Dutch Ministry of Public Housing. We tested four versions of this document: the original text; a revised version with optimized structure and style; the draft version of the 1981 brochure, made by the Ministry; a fouth version entirely consisting of flow charts. 1300 Dutch citizens received one of these versions through the post, together with a description of a fictitious family De Vries.
The participants were asked to check whether this famuly was entitled to renst subsidy, and, if so, for which amount of money. 726 of the addressees responded. The first question was answered correctly by approximately 70% of the participants. The second question by only 6%.
There were no differences between the versions, with one exception: 15% of the participants who had received the flow chart version answered the second question correctly. We concluded that flow charts are effective for this type of information, but also that the regulation on rent subsidy was to complicated to explain. Probably it is impossible to optimally inform citizens about it.

Computerized information

We continued our research with designing a computer program that could be used to answer the questions above. The program asked a number of questions which the user had to answer either with yes or no, or with a number. The program was very primitive if compared with today's standards, but it was really innovative in 1980.
We asked 35 people to answer the questions about the De Vries family using the computer program. Again, approximately 70% of the participants answered the first question correctly, but the real improvement was in the second question, which was answered correctly by 35%. What's more, the participants needed considerable less time: only 30 minutes, instead of 1,5 hours.
When inspecting the results in more detail, we discovered that most mistakes were made with two specific questions in the program, while the mistakes with the paper brochures were very divers. Only a small improvement of the program would possibly have doubled the number of correct answers.

Practical applications

In 1987, personal computers were become more common and the possibility of computerized information for citizens was less utopian as it was in 1980. Our colleagues Leonie van de Pol and Henk van Spijker† designed a new version of the information program about Individual Rent Subsidy. This program was users for two months in the Public Information Office of the city of Hengelo.
About 300 citizens used the program, 50% of had little or no experience with computers. For privacy reasons, it was not possible to check whether they used the program correctly, but by far most of the users turned out to be very satisfied about the program.

In 1988, one of our students, Joëll van der Meer, designed the program OOg & OOr (EYe & EAr) that went one step forward again. This program did not only give information about Individual Rent Subsidy, but also about a large number of other regulations. The user had to answer a list of question, and at the end the program shows which subsidies the user is entitled to. In some cases, the program indicates also the amount of money that can be claimed.
This program turned out to be very effective. A test with 16 participants showed that all of them succeeded to get the right information from the program, which took them 30 minutes on average. De participants had little or no experience with computers.

Recent developments on the Internet

In the years after 1990, developments did not stop. Many government agencies nowadays offer programs similar to our Rent Subsidy program, or OOg & OOr. The World Wide Web is used as a medium for such programs more and more since 1995. After our pioneering period we did no further research on this topic. We did, however, some research into the usability of digital forms.

Publications in English about this subject

  • Jansen, C. & Steehouder, M. (1984). Improving the text of a public leaflet. Information Design Journal 4, 10-18.
  • Steehouder, M. & Jansen, C. (1987): From bureaucratic language to instructional texts: how to design an effective problem-solving tool for citizens. Information design journal 5, 129-139.