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Can Government Catch a Break?

Traditionally, residents have seen government as slow-moving and hard to interact with, but that may be changing. While there’s more work to do, public-sector services are noticeably improving.

Image of a laptop with an overlay of information on the screen
An amazing thing happened in October: A big federal service launched when it was supposed to, and it was so easy to use that people took to social media to say so. In its first weekend it took in 8 million applications, a several-minutes-long process involving filling out a few boxes on a web page.

That would be the White House’s student loan forgiveness program. And it’s just one of many, many examples that have been piling up in recent years of people beginning to have a much nicer experience dealing with the government — all levels of government.

That’s worth noting — and celebrating. For an average person, the prevailing perception of government is inefficiency and difficulty. For those familiar with government, seeing an average person who can’t help but express their satisfaction with a public service is a rarity.

Hopefully that’s becoming less so. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who thinks government has turned a corner on constituent experience.

We are now getting more into designing more like a sprinkler system … rather than being the firefighters. We don’t have to wait until there’s a fire. Let us design systems in a way that you prevent those from happening.
Ordering at-home COVID-19 tests from the U.S. Postal Service was a one-minute exercise — I couldn’t believe all I had to do was hand over a couple pieces of information before the tests shipped to my house. Renewing my vehicle registration takes about as long as making myself a sandwich.

There are much larger and more consequential examples: California, Michigan, Minnesota and New Jersey are receiving national attention for making social safety net applications faster and easier. That’s money in hands to keep families out of financial catastrophe.

Why is it happening now for government, after so long suffering as the butt of jokes? Several reasons.

A big one is buy-in. Elected officials and others are seeing that not only does investing in user experience make technology deployments more successful, it can save money in the long run.

Nikhil Deshpande, chief digital officer for Georgia, remembers a time when leadership would come to people like him after a service had already been created and say “pretty it up.” Now they include testing and feedback loops as part of the initial budget.

“We are now getting more into designing more like a sprinkler system … rather than being the firefighters,” Deshpande said. “We don’t have to wait until there’s a fire. Let us design systems in a way that you prevent those from happening.”

Government has benefited from broadening acceptance of those ideas. Much has come from trailblazers: The U.K. set an example with the establishment of the Government Digital Service in 2011. The work of 18F, the U.S. Digital Service, Code for America and others in the U.S. has slowly pushed the same philosophies forward. In 2021 President Biden issued an executive order directing federal agencies to improve user experience.

Then there’s the workforce side. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of web developers and digital interface designers in state and local government grew 8 percent from 2019-2021, with more growth forecasted in the future. Suzanne Pauley, director of the eMichigan program responsible for user experience in Michigan state government, said she’s seen college degree programs in this area pop up in the past five years or so.

“We have front-end developers [and] we have back-end developers now, and for a long time those were one and the same,” Pauley said. “And then adding on top of that the user experience professionals — the people that can do user research, that can go in and do UI experience development — I think that adding that piece into the puzzle makes it better for user experience in the end.”

So there are more people involved in this work, with more buy-in and funding from leadership. But when funding is an issue, that always comes with an asterisk: What about the underfunded?

Ariel Kennan, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and former service design director for New York City, pointed out that progress has been far slower in some areas. New York City, for example, has a user-friendly new SNAP application process — but due to a staffing shortage, fewer than half of applicants are receiving benefits on time.

As for student loan forgiveness, the White House had to put the whole thing on pause because courts ruled against the program.

It’s a reminder — a very frustrating one for the people relying on those systems, I’m sure — that technology is part of an ecosystem, of which other parts can stymie progress.

“You can make a better front door, and that’s a really important part of service delivery, but it has to keep working,” Kennan said.

See also the unemployment insurance situation. Those large state systems have faced chronic underfunding, sometimes deliberately because of anti-welfare elected officials. During the early days of COVID-19, UI claims spiked higher than anyone ever expected and systems were overwhelmed. I watched friends and family wait on UI money for far too long or get tangled up in errors. To make things worse, fraud rings took advantage of the chaos and made off with billions.

In response, federal technologists and other do-gooders jumped in to make state systems work better. It’s improved the process, but not everywhere. And at the same time, states put in anti-fraud technologies that successfully fought crime while introducing headaches for some innocent bystanders caught up in the dragnet.

There’s also the problem of modern systems relying on legacy technology, which can cause delays and prevent data sharing. Public officials, inventive vendors and civic technologists have all found ways to slap slick user interfaces on those systems, which can make using them much easier — by, for example, condensing down the number of fields on a form.

But legacy technology is still a problem that will have to be addressed eventually. Once it is, there will be greater opportunities to make the entire process better for the constituent from beginning to end.

Code for America’s work with Minnesota is instructive. The organization helped the state launch a new process for applying for several benefits at once. Nine processes were compacted into one; the time to apply dropped from 110 minutes to 15. But it still relies on older infrastructure.

Lou Moore, chief technology officer for Code for America, counseled that addressing all the things outside of simple user interface design can take quite a bit of work.

“It’s so critical to understand all the different constraints and factors that are at play,” he said. “You have to understand what the technical landscape is, what the policy landscape is that this digital service is situated in. And you have to understand what is preventing you from having a better customer experience. Is it that you don’t have the data that you need to actually identify the right problem to solve, or the magnitude of the problem? Is it that you don’t have the capabilities or the insights to design a good solution? Or is it that there’s something that’s preventing you from getting that solution in people’s hands? Those are just a few.”

Capacity-building will answer many of those questions. Pauley’s team in Michigan has been hiring more people to help design services. Her team and Deshpande’s in Georgia both emphasize design libraries that help future designers work faster and more consistently. Success will breed success.

Clearly there’s still a lot to do. But in the meantime, the level of service provided by the government has reached a point where average people are beginning to see working with the government as something bearable — maybe even pleasant. There’s power in that.

Reporting from Andrew Adams contributed to this story.
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.