Research note. The Bite of Administrative Burden

Research note by Carolyn J. Heinrich

Political leaders and the public have long disparaged the “wearing friction” or costs of interacting with government and have called for the public sector “to make its business less unbusinesslike” (Wilson, 1887: 201, 203). These “onerous” encounters with government and policy implementation that individuals experience in seeking public benefits or services have been described as “administrative burden” (Burden et al., 2012: 742). In a recent article in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, I draw on a framework first set forth by Kahn et al. (1976) to broaden this conceptualization of administrative burden — beyond bureaucratic encounters where the person initiating the transaction is outside the organization (e.g., an individual applying for public benefits) — to include burdens imposed on citizens through, for example, the enforcement of laws by government (e.g., voter identification requirements), compliance conditions and other “reciprocal expectations” (Lipsky, 1984) associated with interactions with bureaucracies. One can also consider how encounters between persons or entities outside the bureaucracy might contribute to administrative burden, through, for example, lack of outreach on the part of public entities that allows misinformation to circulate among citizens and create inadvertent barriers to accessing public services. Importantly, however, this broader framework for analyzing bureaucratic encounters can also be applied in thinking about how to better structure interactions between individuals and public bureaucracies so as to alleviate or abate administrative burdens and improve governmental effectiveness.

One predictable and frequent finding of studies that have assessed the costs of administrative burden is that program access (or take up of benefits) is constrained and low, and some research has directly linked administrative burden to disconnections from or denial of benefits (Bennett, 1995; Currie, 2006; Shore-Sheppard, 2008; Wallace, 2002). Furthermore, research shows that the costs and consequences of administrative burden fall disproportionately on the poor and disadvantaged who have fewer personal resources to draw on in navigating administrative burden and responding to procedural demands (Bendick et al., 1978; Cherlin et al., 2002; Super, 2004). In this research, I sought to make two important contributions: (1) to extend the empirical investigation of administrative burden beyond concerns about access to and efficiency of public services to questions of individual and societal impacts, and (2) to go beyond the typical U.S. or developed country context to examine this phenomenon in a developing country setting (i.e., a large social protection program in South Africa), where the “bite” of administrative burden may potentially be bigger.

Administrative problems in social cash transfer programs have been well-documented by the International Labor Organization (Tabor, 2002), including: excessive administrative costs; poor staff remuneration; neglect of compliance and enforcement functions; difficulties in record-keeping; excessively complex procedures; delays in processing benefit claims; and inadequate attention to ensuring that applicants understand program rules and requirements. All of these problems were present in South Africa’s Child Support Grant (CSG) program, a means-tested, unconditional cash transfer program that is paid to a child’s parent or caregiver with the objectives of reducing poverty among children. Furthermore, numerous program changes over time and the challenging context in which the CSG was implemented exacerbated administrative burdens that ultimately contributed to substantial variation in timing and length of grant receipt among CSG beneficiaries, which was in turn used for empirically estimating program impacts and the potential for administrative burden to moderate them.

In my empirical analysis, I generated measures of the “intended” CSG “dose” or months of grant receipt that would have been received for children if they had not experienced administrative burdens, grant interruptions or disconnections from the CSG (in error) and also calculated the dose lost due to these problems (an average of 20 months for all youth in the sample). I examined the implications of dose loss for youth outcomes in adolescence, focusing in particular on youth risky behaviors, which research has shown vary with household consumption expenditures and income shocks and could be mitigated by cash transfer programs (Yeh, 2006). More specifically, I matched youth based on the total months of CSG they were eligible to receive and then estimated the consequences of losing cash transfers due to administrative burden on their engagement in risky behaviors.  The results show that female adolescents were significantly more likely to have abstained from sex (predicted probability of 5.5 percentage points higher); to have had fewer sex partners and to have refrained from criminal activity (by 13.4 percentage points) if their receipt of cash transfers was not interrupted. In addition, the highest grade completed for females increased by about one-fifth of a grade if their receipt of the CSG was not interrupted. Male adolescents, in turn, had a lower predicted probability of abstaining from sex (by 7.7 percentage points) and refraining from alcohol use (by 8.7 percentage points) and were significantly more likely to start alcohol at an earlier age if their benefits were stopped in error.

These findings confirm potentially high costs associated with administrative burden in programs serving the poor. The South African CSG is not unique among cash transfer programs in its relatively complex and demanding requirements for application, long waits at social welfare offices with limited service hours, and other infrastructure and capacity problems that may have contributed to misapplication of program rules and uneven coverage as the program was expanded. In fact, as the South African government sought to address these problems, taking actions to improve the CSG application process and better communicate changes in program rules and procedures, lower rates of disconnections and interruptions of grant receipt were observed over time. Going forward, governments implementing social welfare programs could use the framework and results presented here to anticipate sources of administrative burden and identify ways it could be reduced, enabling them to take early and aggressive steps to, for example, ensure that application requirements and processes are as simple and transparent as possible; that front-line staff administering the programs understand and are committed to applying program rules fairly; that updates to program requirements get communicated quickly and clearly, and that local infrastructure is used to communicate with and support the eligible population’s efforts to successfully complete the application process and maintain access to benefits. Continuing efforts to expand empirical investigations of administrative burden and its implications within this broader framing of the problem and in other unexplored contexts would also deepen our understanding of these issues and the policy and administrative responses that might circumvent negative consequences.

Lastly, to the extent that this research might spur additional exploration of the potential costs to government and society (not only individuals) of tolerating or even inducing administrative burden in both developed and developing country contexts, it could possibly alter future political debates about the tradeoffs or harm associated with administrative burden. A recent article in The Economist (2015: 54) described these types of administrative burdens as “ordeal mechanisms,” implying that they are constructed to deter applications to social welfare programs from the less needy. At the same time, the story also acknowledged that “the tougher the ordeal, the greater the number of needy candidates who will fail to qualify.” If future research can quantify, as done here, the costs of those foregone benefits — such as the diminution of children’s health and well-being and their longer-term consequences for society — this issue might be construed in a different light in policy discussions and decision making to come.


About the Author


Carolyn J. Heinrich is Professor of Public Policy, Education and Economics at Vanderbilt University, Peabody College of Education and Human Development, Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations.

Personal webpage



Table 1. Predicting Disconnections and Interruptions from the CSG



Table 2. Predicting Bad Stops from the CSG



Table 3. Effects on the Interruptions and Problematic Disconnections from CSG on Adolescent Outcome




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