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Does simplifying application processes improve recruitment efforts in the public sector?

Project Summary

In collaboration with the Los Angeles Police Department, we analyzed four years of administrative data on officer recruitment to understand the impact of reducing administrative burdens – or alleviating some of the complexity of the process – on continued engagement with the application. The introduction of standardized, simplified forms and expedited testing was associated with increased progress through the application process. However, removal of the preliminary background application – while streamlining the process – retained applicants who would not otherwise be qualified. We then conducted a field experiment to nudge applicants to persist in the process. These low-cost reminders were effective at improving retention in the application process.

Why is this issue important?

Recruitment within the public sector, including within law enforcement, has been a long-standing challenge. One key contributor is often the complexity and length of the application process. Public administration scholars have developed a great deal of knowledge about how administrative burdens impact service delivery, particularly through community interactions with public service agencies, though limited empirical work has been devoted to understanding how administrative burden affects the recruitment of a public service workforce.

What are we doing?

We analyzed four years of administrative data from the Los Angeles Police Department that tracked officer applications throughout each step of process to understand where applicants tend to drop off, and where targeted efforts to help bolster persistence may be warranted. Additionally, in line with departmental changes to the recruitment and application process, we assessed the impact of: 1) switching to a simplified (and standardized) form for the personal statement; 2) eliminating the preliminary background application; and 3) expedited testing. We also conducted a field experiment, where individuals were randomly assigned to be sent either a standard reminder email or a reminder email that included language that attempted to shift the default application submission to being online, plus a text message reminder that was sent about a week after the email.

What have we learned?

Switching to a statewide-standardized and simpler personal history form was associated with increased persistence throughout the application process, with no differential participation based on demographics. The elimination of the preliminary background application was associated with greater persistence of individuals – including those who were not qualified – throughout the application process. Expedited testing was also associated with greater persistence with the application process. In terms of the field experiment, we found that those assigned to be sent the text message and online-defaulted email message persisted through more of the application process, relative to those who were assigned to be sent just the initial email. Our results suggest that reducing the complexity of the application process may benefit recruitment efforts, though the manner in which complexity is reduced has crucial implications for the resulting selection pool.

What comes next?

Future research should continue to test out simplification of the process, particularly through using less-complicated forms and procedures, to add greater evidence towards building an understanding of how administrative burdens in applications harm recruitment efforts.


  • Los Angeles Police Department


2017 - 2018


  • Field experiment
  • Administrative data analysis



Research Area

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