Inside Story

Recoding government

Are governments creating efficient online systems that don’t make us feel stupid?

Andrew Leigh Books 30 August 2023 1293 words

Good design principles remain constant: author Jennifer Pahlka (left) at the annual Code for America Summit in 2019. CfA

In 2018 a US court ordered the Trump administration to reunite migrant families who had been separated at the US–Mexico border. The ruling forced a backflip on the administration’s policy of separating children from adults. Yet the administration’s border agents struggled for weeks to comply with the court ruling.

The problem turned out to be technical. The computer system used by the agents, designed on the assumption that unaccompanied minors were travelling solo, had no way of recording a link between them and their parents. Some agents stuck sticky notes on infants’ onesies. Others kept makeshift records that were lost when the children were moved.

In Recoding America, technology writer Jennifer Pahlka tells the stories of how technological successes and failures have affected the way the US government operates. As founder of the non-profit Code for America and deputy chief technology officer under president Barack Obama, Pahlka is ideally placed to show why government computer systems sometimes underperform (and occasionally outperform) our expectations.

In one case, a pair of young coders set about redesigning the website for people to apply for food stamps in California. The existing website contained 212 questions and could take up to an hour to complete. Because it didn’t work on mobile devices, some homeless people would try applying at a public library computer only to find it kicked them off after half an hour. The coding duo redesigned the system to remove irrelevant questions, made it mobile-friendly, and ensured that the application process could be completed in about seven minutes.

Part of the reason government websites are so complicated, Pahlka argues, is that their creators rarely stop to think about the consequences of complexity. She quotes a colleague of hers admonishing website designers: “Every time you add a question to a form, I want you to imagine the user filling it out with one hand while using the other to break up a brawl between toddlers.”

The philosophy of good government services, Pahlka argues, rests on dignity. Services that respect our time, use straightforward terms and don’t make us feel stupid will not only work better; they will also help build a greater sense of trust in government.

Pahlka discusses the debacle of President Obama’s site, whose glitches prevented hundreds of thousands of Americans from obtaining health insurance in the first few weeks after its launch. By contrast, she notes that the site worked beautifully, allowing Americans to order four free Covid tests in less than a minute.

Part of the difference was that mailing out tests is easier than selling insurance, but the designers of also made a deliberate decision to keep their site straightforward. In distributing free Covid tests, the designers might reasonably have asked users their vaccine status and household size. They might have required everyone to check a box promising not to resell the tests. But they recognised that the longer it took to use, the fewer people would order tests. They opted for the KISS principle: keep it simple, stupid.

Fixing one problem often leads to another. Pahlka tells the story of the US veterans affairs department, whose website worked only with the software versions used by those inside the agency and often crashed when used with the browsers and document readers on veterans’ home computers. When the department fixed the online form, the number of incoming applications jumped tenfold. Suddenly the problem wasn’t a faulty website, it was a backlog of applications. Some departmental officials wanted the agency to revert to its technically flawed application form. To the department’s credit, its leadership chose to clear the backlog instead.

Government is the focus of Recoding America, but the problems are familiar in many large organisations. Pahlka wryly notes Kodak’s decision to outsource most of its information technology staff to IBM in 1989. In the 1970s, the company had produced the first digital camera prototype; in 2012, sideswiped by the rise of electronic photography, the company filed for bankruptcy. We’ll never know whether the pre-eminent photography company of the twentieth century could have transitioned into the digital age if it had kept its technological expertise in-house. But the decision didn’t help.

In 2001, Robert D. Atkinson and I wrote a report titled Breaking Down Bureaucratic Barriers: The Next Phase of Digital Government for the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. Reading back through that report two decades on, some of it seems quaint. At the time, the US government had only been online for eight years. One of our recommendations was that government websites should allow personalisation through the use of cookies — a radical notion at the time.

But some of our suggestions still ring true. Government websites should be arranged with a focus on consumers, not producers. Just as Amazon’s homepage doesn’t feature a photo of Jeff Bezos, service-oriented government websites should be designed around customers’ needs. Atkinson and I argued that governments should avoid the silo mentality revealed by websites that show only the programs provided by a single agency, and instead structure the information around users.

Layers of government within Australia can also be time-consuming and confusing obstacles for citizens. But with sensible use of technology, government can make it easy for people to understand and access all the services available to them.

The Australian government has commenced organising services by life event. A trial allows new parents to perform one simple transaction in myGov to enrol the newborn in Medicare, initiate family assistance claims, and register the birth with the state or territory government. In principle, government can do the same with retirement. If a citizen commences on the age pension, why not offer to add state or territory government concession cards to the myGov wallet and connect the new pensioner with financial support services?

According to Pahlka, American adults spend an average of forty-two hours per year on paperwork for the federal government — a figure that doesn’t include the forms they fill out for state and local governments. Making government easier to use could pay massive dividends for the community. One way to think about it is that if the typical working day is eight hours long, then reducing the paperwork burden by one-fifth would be like giving each American adult another public holiday.

Pahlka quotes Cecilia Muñoz, head of the Domestic Policy Council under President Obama: “We need to think bigger than bringing tech solutions to policy problems.” It’s not the tech, she argues, it’s the tech people. The successful site wasn’t built by a private provider, it was designed in-house by a team from the US Digital Service and the US Postal Service. The whole project took six weeks.

Technology will change, but the principles of good technology design will remain constant. Design systems based on consumer needs, not government imperatives. Keep private information secure. Beware of locking in legacy architecture. Encourage innovation by breaking projects into small, achievable components. Don’t make websites any more complicated than necessary.

If I were to take a single message from Recoding America, it would be about the relationship between tech firms and government. Governments should learn from how the best technology companies design their websites and apps, tweaking their interfaces to maximise the user experience. Yet just because there’s a lot to learn from the private sector, it doesn’t follow that outsourcing is always desirable. Having coding expertise within government helps align policy and delivery, allows troubleshooting and improvements, and places a priority on that most straightforward of goals: delivering public services effectively. •

Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better
By Jennifer Pahlka | Metropolitan Books | $49.99 | 346 pages