What’s Really At Stake in Better Interfaces to Government

When Jen Pahlka asked 2011 Fellow Scott Silverman why he’d chosen to leave Apple for a year at Code for America, he said “Because I believe interfaces to government can be simple, beautiful, and easy to use.” That line has become a mantra for us, but it has been given new urgency as our 2013 projects have taken us deeper into issues that affect the lives of our poorest citizens, like access to social services, food aid, and even finding alternatives to incarceration. When interfaces to government are obscure and difficult, the good intentions behind government programs often fail to achieve their desired results; good government policy can be completely thwarted by bad implementation.

Ezra Klein of the Washington Post wrote eloquently about how the failure of healthcare.gov brings this point home, but notes that much of the reporting mistakenly characterizes it as an one-time catastrophe rather than something that is endemic:

“one privilege the insured and well-off have is to excuse the terrible quality of services the government routinely delivers to the poor. Too often, the press ignores — or simply never knows — the pain and trouble of interfacing with government bureaucracies that the poor struggle with daily. That can allow the problems in those bureaucracies to fester.”

SF Food Stamp Termination NoticeOne example that we learned about through our engagement with San Francisco this year is how easy it is for someone to lose food stamp (CalFresh) benefits if they fail to respond to a confusing renewal notice in a timely way. Participants often don’t learn they haven’t re-qualified until the embarrassing moment where their CalFresh card doesn’t work at the store. We built a text-message reminder system (Promptly.io) to make it easy for the city to remind participants about benefit expiration. That sounds like a simple thing, but it took a lot of work — the agency hadn’t collected cell phone numbers or email addresses for its clients, there were privacy issues to be considered, and so on. But by putting themselves in the shoes of the actual consumer of government services, the team was able to build a service that really makes a difference in people’s lives.

Watch them talk about it at the Code for America Summit, here.

In the healthcare.gov hearings, government officials have argued that the failure of the website doesn’t reflect on the strength of the underlying program. This is just wrong. As Ezra Klein wrote in that same piece:

“A failure in the press coverage of the health-care exchange’s rocky launch has been in allowing people to believe that the problem is a glitchy Web site. This is a failure of language: ‘The Web site’ has become a confusing stand-in phrase for any problem relating to the law’s underlying infrastructure. No one has a very good word to describe everything that infrastructure encompasses.

“In brick-and-mortar terms, it’s the road that leads to the store, the store itself, the payment systems between the store and the government and the manufacturers, the computer system the manufacturers use to fill the orders, the trucks that carry the the product back to the store, the loading dock where the customers pick up the products, and so on.

“It’s the problems in that infrastructure — indeed, much more than ‘just a Web site’ — that pose such deep problems for the law.”

Tom Steinberg of MySociety summed up how important it is for policy makers to understand how central technology now is to the design of government programs when he wrote:

“you [can] no longer run a country properly if the elites don’t understand technology in the same way they grasp economics or ideology or propaganda…. What good governance and the good society look like is now inextricably linked to an understanding of the digital.”

While cynics may say that “government just doesn’t get it,” we know through our work with the Code for America city partners that things are already changing in profound ways. And the work of agencies like the UK Government Digital Service (whose Design Principles are a manifesto for the new kind of thinking that is sweeping government), the new US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and programs like the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows (loosely modeled on the Code for America Fellowship) demonstrate that the new approach to user-centered government services is taking hold at the national level as well.

Rather than bemoaning the problems with healthcare.gov and seeking to find fault and political advantage, now is a great time to seize the moment and commit ourselves to create government services that give all citizens services that are simple, effective, and easy to use.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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