Monday, June 20th, 2011

How to improve a government form (part 1)

A slightly improved version of Ohio’s
JFS 04221 form (in PDF format)

The Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services has released a new version of their JFS 04221 form, Federal and State Funded Food Programs — Eligibility to Take Food Home. This is the form that people picking up food at government-subsidized food pantries have to fill out to affirm their eligibility. Because the food pantry I volunteer for (Feeding Friends, a program of Cross Creek Community Church) gets food for a fee from Foodbank Dayton, our clients are required to complete this form. As the Feeding Friends team leader, it’s part of my job to try to get our clients to fill the form out in accordance with the government’s rules, and that’s more difficult than you might think.

One of the difficulties is that the forms are not supposed to have any extraneous marks on them. No cross outs, no circling words on the form, etc. Something minor related to this is that people are supposed to sign the form inside the box that has the title of “Signature,” but very often people sign above that box. Poorly designed signature box Why? I guess because there’s such a tempting blank space above the “Signature” heading and then people are used to putting their signatures on a line that has the word “Signature” below it.

Yes, it should be obvious when filling out this form, after having put your name inside the box marked “Name” and your address inside the box marked “Address” and your city inside the box marked “City” that your signature should go inside the box marked “Signature,” but guess what? For many of the people filling out this form, it’s not obvious.

Fortunately this problem is really easy to fix—format the “I certify” text so that there’s no tempting blank space above the “Signature” box and people signing the form will have no alternative but to sign the form inside the “Signature” box. The JFS folks even distributed the new form in Microsoft Word format, which is why it’s easy to fix this problem, but they oh-so-cleverly password-protected it so that it couldn’t be altered.

Except that if you have access to the internet, the password is easily circumventable. As pointed out on the page “Can I crack a password protected Microsoft Word file?”, all you have to do is to save the file in XML format, open the XML file in a text editor, remove the <w:documentProtection> tag, save the file and then re-open it back in Word.

So here’s how I changed the signature block on our copy of JFS 04221:
Better designed signature box
People who get the form with this box won’t be signing above the line unless they decide to sign on top of printed text.

As mentioned above, JFS distributed their new form in Microsoft Word format, and they even set it up as a fillable form. However, that too has room for improvement, which will be part 2 of “How to improve a government form.”

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

How to improve a government form (part 2)

If you’re just joining us, you might want to read yesterday’s post, “How to improve a government form (part 1),” that introduces the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services’s new JFS 84221 form.

As mentioned yesterday, something good about the new JFS form is that it’s in Microsoft Word format and set up as a fillable form. However, it seems that the fine folks at JFS could learn a thing or two about fillable forms in Word.

Also as mentioned yesterday, a challenge with the JFS 84221 form is having it competed in accordance with the government’s rules. One challenge in particular is correctly completing the “Number of people in househodl by age” section. Each age group must be completed; if a household has no members in a range, that group may not be left blank but instead must have “0” or “--” in it (nothing else is acceptable, not “none” or “N/A” or “X”). In addition, the total field must be filled in, and correctly (you might be surprised, or then again you might not, how many people cannot add).

Number of people in household by age as designed by JFS with dumb fields
“Number of people in household by age” section
as designed by JFS with dumb fields

What the JFS seems not to have realized (or perhaps they did but chose not to implement—more on that below) is that in Word all the above problems can be solved. Want to make sure that a field is always completed or has a default value? Want to do a total automatically? Word can do that!

To tell Word what you want to do, right-click on each of the fields to be changed (after you unprotect the document—see yesterday’s post to see how) and change the properties as shown below.

Properties for the total field

Properties for the age range fields
For each of the age range fields:

  1. Change the type to “Number”
  2. Set the default number to “0”
  3. In “Bookmark” give the field a meaningful name (this makes the total equation easier to understand)
  4. Check the “Calculate on exit” box

For the total field:

  1. Change the type to “Calculation”
  2. Change the expression to “=Number60+Number18+NumberBirth” (these field names should be whatever you used above)

Presto! You now have a JFS 84221 in Word that has household fields that cannot be left blank, filled in with anything but numbers or totaled incorrectly.

Number of people in household updated with smart fields
“Number of people in household by age” section updated with smart fields

There is one challenge with this updated form, which may well be the reason that JFS chose not to implement these features—if you print this form without filing anything in, you’ll get a hardcopy with “0” in each of the household fields, making it unsuitable for someone to complete by hand. If you need blank forms for people to write on, you’ll want the original form (or yesterday’s form that eliminates the temptation to sign in the wrong box).

However, something I’ve learned while managing Cross Creek’s Feeding Friends food pantry, is that you really don’t want to let clients fill out forms on their own. The rules for filling out the forms correctly are complicated, leaving you with the choices of pedantically making clients fill out new forms to correct mistakes (something that I see as disrespectful and that takes too long) or of having intake volunteers fill out the forms as they interview clients.

So why did I bother with improving JFS’s fillable form? Because, with the introduction of this new JFS 84221 form that takes effect in July, we’re going to have every single one of our clients complete new forms next month. To make that manageable, I and other Feeding Friends volunteers are going to use the new fillable form to enter our existing recent clients’s data, so the clients, unless they’ve had some change in address or household, won’t be bothered next month with completing new forms. They’ll each get a nice new form, pre-printed with their information, to sign (inside the “Signature” box).

Those of you who are savvy about Foodbank Dayton might well be asking, “Well what about the Virtual Case Manager software that was demonstrated at a recent Miami Valley Hunger Coalition meeting? If you were using that, wouldn’t you avoid all this hassle?” Maybe so, and I have some opinions about that, which I’ll share in another post.

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

My so-called Christian life—a response to two people’s opinions about my Christianity

A few days ago a gay friend of mine complained on Facebook about my “Christ-centric” point of view, saying that he couldn’t understand my “still want[ing] to find hope within the religious mainstream.” On the very same day, a heterosexual stranger with whom I had a little debate on Twitter about marriage equality in New York said that his opposition to same sex marriage was “the Christian point of view,” having expressed astonishment at my 140-character explanation of my religious beliefs. An irony made more evident by the close timing of the reactions from these two very different people is how they, coming from such antithetical places, share something in common with each other—neither approves of my religious beliefs or the spiritual choices I’ve made.

For the former person, someone I’ve known for many years and whose friendship I still value, I’m too Christian. My openness about my faith, my participation in a church, my knowledge of scripture, all of this is apparently too much for him, this despite the fact that I’ve never pushed my religion on him, never told him he should be Christian or join a church, never engaged him in debate about religion, never emailed him or posted on his Facebook wall about religion. Indeed my comment on one of his posts that triggered his harangue made no mention either of Christ or of religion.

For the latter person, the stranger whom I’ve never met and never will, I’m not Christian enough. My being a member of a United Church of Christ congregation, part of a denomination that not only endorses marriage equality but also espouses views such as the key UCC one that “God is Still Speaking,” means that I am “not Biblical” in my approach to life. [Another irony is that this stranger’s father is a UCC pastor, although I do not know whether this stranger and his father share similar views about the path the denomination has taken.]

Perhaps one reason my friend disapproves of my religious perspective is that, although he does not realize this, he agrees with the stranger about Christianity. The stranger, explaining his beliefs on marriage, on the UCC and on Biblical inerrancy, presented his views as “the Christian point of view,” not a Christian’s point of view [emphasis mine], and I think that somehow my friend agrees with this stranger, Somehow my friend agrees with this stranger, that there can be only one Christian point of view. that there can be only one Christian point of view, and thus if I say I’m Christian, my point of view must be invalid.

A third irony is that the stranger showed me a little more respect than did my friend because he actually asked about my beliefs, while my friend I don’t think understands them, but both the stranger and my friend think I’m wrong when it comes to religion. While I respect the right of both my friend and this stranger to have religious beliefs different from mine, I refuse to allow either of them to tell me that there is a single Christian perspective.


So what do I believe? Well, what I told the stranger about my beliefs, in a Twitter-sized chunk, is “that the bible isn’t inerrant, that, as the UCC says, God is still speaking, and that Christianity isn’t the only way.”

For many Christians, including the stranger, my beliefs are enough to disqualify me from claiming that I’m a Christian, and given our culture’s understanding of what it means to be Christian (an understanding of Christianity that, ironically, my non-Christian friend shares), I guess I’m not a Christian. I do not believe the Bible to be inerrant. I do not believe an omnipotent God had no choice but to sacrifice his only son to atone for my sins to save me from eternal damnation. Further, I do not believe in an omnipotent God at all, I do not believe Jesus was the son of God or the sole manifestation of God, I do not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, and I’m not entirely sure there even was a historical Jesus. The stranger’s right—
I’m not Biblical.

My friend’s right—
I am Christ-centric.
The stranger’s right—I’m not Biblical.

For many non-Christians, including my friend, my beliefs are enough to dismiss me as yet another Christian, and given my choices in life, especially those about many of the people with whom I associate, I guess I am a Christian. My background is Christian and I’m a part of a Christian church. You may not know many people who’ve helped to start a church, but I’m one such person, having been a part of Cross Creek Community Church since before it was even called that (I drove my little gay Miata through a blizzard in 1996 to be part of a small group of people who met to come up with our as yet unborn church’s name). Many of my friends are clergy. Despite not being entirely sure there ever was a historical Jesus, I believe much of what Jesus reputedly says, including the bits about loving one’s neighbors and caring for the least among us. It’d be much easier if I didn’t believe this stuff—I wouldn’t ever have to take a vacation day to unload a Foodbank truck or to get up very early on a Saturday to volunteer at a church food pantry. My friend’s right—I am Christ-centric.

Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter whether either the stranger or my friend is right. I can’t live my life to please strangers who understand my beliefs and thus think I’m going to hell, and I can’t live my life to please friends who misunderstand my beliefs and thus think I’m making choices to avoid going to hell. All I can do is make choices that, as much as possible, make my life better for me.

And whether the stranger is right that I’m not a Christian but should be or my friend is right that I am a Christian but shouldn’t be, I’m happy being the kind of Christian I am. A statement that is true for me, though it will be too Christ-centric for my friend, is that I’ve found God at Cross Creek. The God I’ve found there is neither the one in whom the stranger believes nor the one whom my friend rejects. No, the God I’ve found is one whose voice is heard through relationships and dialogue, one who is made powerful from people working together but one who is limited by people’s imperfections. My describing God in this way should make it obvious that I believe God can be encountered in many circumstances, not just through Christianity and indeed not just through religion, but my encountering God through this Christian community works for me. I’m not ashamed of it, nor will I apologize for it.

A final irony before I close is that in another context this same statement—I’m not ashamed of it, nor will I apologize for it—would be something my friend would wholeheartedly endorse. It’s rather queer that in a Christian context he would find it so offensive.

Update 8/4/2013: This post is a bit out-of-date. I still believe, as I said above, in Jesus’s instructions to love one another and to help those in need, but I’m no longer calling myself Christian. Read why here.

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