Consolidating questions across programs

CiviForm enables applicants to re-use previously submitted information when completing applications to new programs. It accomplishes this by unifying question definitions across programs. This is not a technical problem -- it is first and foremost an administrative problem. CiviForm makes it easier to implement information re-use across programs once the administrative work of consolidating question definitions is complete. Here are some best practices for consolidating questions and applications across programs.

Work with key stakeholders across programs

This work involves understanding administrative and policy requirements for different programs, so you must work closely with individuals responsible for administering those programs to understand what they need out of their application forms (and why). In particular, seek out people who have the organizational context to understand why questions must exist, as well as the agency to make decisions about whether or not questions can or should be changed.

Start with a few programs

Begin by mapping questions across one or two key programs to understand where there are similarities and differences in the questions they ask (and how they ask those questions). Starting with a few programs makes the task of mapping questions easier to approach, and provides a solid foundation for adding additional programs incrementally once enough questions have been mapped.

Understand key shared questions

Understand key questions such as name, date of birth, address, contact information, income, household size, assets, and other characteristics such as whether or not someone is a student or has a disability. These questions may seem similar across programs, but there may be subtle differences in what they are actually asking for. For example, questions around income may have different definitions (e.g. in what is considered income, or over what time period). For demographic questions such as race, ethnicity, and gender, understand whether these questions are being asked through free-text fields or categorical fields. If they are categorical, identify similarities or differences in which categories are used across programs.

Understand the purpose and meaning of each question

In order to consolidate and simplify questions across programs, it is essential to understand each question's purpose and meaning. If the meaning of questions can be made consistent across programs, then combining and re-using questions is straightforward. However, if questions seem similar but actually serve different purposes or ask for different information, they may need to exist separately in the question bank to meet different programs' requirements.

Is it necessary?

While auditing questions, understand whether or not a question or requirement is actually necessary. It may be the case that some legacy questions are no longer necessary to administer a program and can be removed entirely. In order to judge with certainty, you must work closely with program administrators to understand a question's origin and purpose.

Why is it necessary?

Different questions may be necessary for different reasons. For example, some questions such as income are simply necessary to determine someone's eligibility for a given program. Other questions such as demographic questions may be necessary (or optional) for mandated reporting purposes. Some questions may be "necessary" simply because some underlying software system or process was poorly designed to require them. Other questions such as past enrollment in other programs might be valuable to help with program operations, but may not be truly required for the administration of the program. Understanding which questions are actually necessary and why they are necessary can help indicate which questions can be consolidated or removed, and which must remain.

What information is actually necessary?

While some questions may seem similar, their underlying meaning may differ subtly, or the actual information required may be a subset of what is asked for. For example, rather than asking for individual information about each household member, it may be sufficient to just ask for the total number of household members. In other cases, it may be necessary to know the age of each household member, in which case asking for that detailed information is justified. Similarly, if only each household member's age is necessary, there is no need to ask for each person's date of birth.

Encode information so that it can be easily re-used

Information can be re-used if each piece of information is represented as a single question in CiviForm. As an example, if you'd like to understand characteristics about someone such as whether or not they are a student or have a disability, asking these questions individually makes them reusable in other applications, whereas asking them all in a single question using a checklist of multiple options requires that another program use the same checklist of options to re-use that information. In this sense, questions should be broken down into their simplest form to enable re-use. However, if such formatting affects the usability of a form -- for example, asking a dozen one-off questions rather than having a single checklist with a dozen options -- it may be best to have separate questions that serve each use case, even if it means that information can't be directly re-used. Alternatively, data can be exported and processed outside of CiviForm to re-encode information to a usable form, even if it wasn't asked as such originally (for example, turning a series of yes/no questions into a checklist or vice-versa).

Promote accepted best-practices when possible

For demographic questions such as race and gender, make a decision to standardize on accepted best-practices when possible. For example, some jurisdictions enable individuals to self-report these fields or have their own set of options which may differ from other standards. While there may be federal reporting requirements that mandate specific language in questions, some jurisdictions or programs may have more flexibility in how they ask these questions and can promote best practices within their organization.

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