As people increasingly expect services to be available online and easy to use, nearly everything government touches is now an issue of public technology. But software, data and gadgets alone are no fix if the individuals actually accessing the services are not considered.
That’s one of the core themes of “Power to the Public,” a new book by two members of the New America think tank and former White House officials that argues there have never been more technological resources and data analysis available to government than there are today, but that the best solutions are still the ones that emphasize users and often take many revisions to perfect.
“Preparing organizations to thrive in the world today isn’t a one-and-done operation like upgrading to a new computer,” write Hana Schank, New America’s director of strategy for public interest technology, and Tara Dawson McGuinness, founder of the think tank’s New Practice Lab. “New tools don’t work without understanding the humans who use them, their skills, their work and their challenges.”
In an interview with StateScoop, Schank and McGuinness said that while the federal government has advanced considerably in recent years, there’s still a “real gap” when it comes to state governments modernizing and improving their services. (Both worked for former President Barack Obama, who recently plugged the book.)
“If you look at the general state of tech fluency across all government sectors, probably the federal government is doing the best,” Schank said. “The states are really lagging behind if they don’t have the funding, but they don’t have the tech talent that they need to either to implement solutions or guide policymakers and the right choices.”
‘No single person’
Several of the service delivery cases “Power to the Public” examines concern paper-based processes, perhaps none more frustrating than the replacement of a 42-page, 1,204-question form used by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to determine if residents were eligible for public benefits like Medicaid and nutrition assistance. The form, known as DHS-1171, held the distinction of being the longest government form in the United States, asking people questions as specific as the dates their children were conceived and was frequently returned to applicants for being incorrect or incomplete.
Changes to the form began in 2015 when a former head of the United Way of Southeastern Michigan named Michael Brennan attended a three-month design course at Stanford University and returned to Detroit to found a nonprofit design studio called Civilla. As Schank and McGuinness write, Brennan made it his new firm’s top priority to improve — i.e., shrink — DHS-1171.
After years of meetings with lawmakers, agency heads and people who actually needed benefits, Civilla was hired to produce a new form that’s 80% shorter. That kind of reform, Schank and McGuinness said, is only accomplished when officials consider the experience of a government interaction from the user’s side. But historically, most state agencies don’t have someone performing that role.
“Very frequently, there is no single person whose job it is to wake up and think about the user experience,” McGuinness said.
Adopting a more user-centered approach that combines all of those concerns often takes decision-making from the top, Schank said. But too often, governments can be hesitant to move in a direction that marries good technology practices with good policymaking.
“We’re talking about the mayor or the governor or the agency head leading a path to make working differently possible and trying new things possible,” she said. “That requires someone at the top to say ‘That’s OK.’ Government has a lot of fear around the press coming out and saying, ‘Oh, look at this stupid thing government did.'”
In the case of DHS-1171, Schank and McGuinness recall in the book, Brennan and his team were welcomed with open arms by then-Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration.
After Schank and McGuinness started writing their book in January 2020, the project was overtaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, and they argue that in many instances the circumstances of the health crisis nudged states toward that more user-friendly attitude, as government services needed to be scaled up massively and delivered with minimal human contact.
“Once the pandemic started, pretty much everything is a public interest technology story,” McGuinness said. “All of the issues around really meeting people’s needs become a lot more clear when you’re talking about online.”
But the policies often came up short. Schank and McGuinness write that drawn-out political arguments over the scope of pandemic relief packages, coupled with many states’ unemployment systems running on legacy IT, fueled the breakdowns in benefits that have continued through the health crisis. They compare the United States’ economic response with that of Germany’s, where billions of dollars in aid became available to freelance workers just a few days after the enactment of a relief plan that leaders had drafted in the span of just a week.
Germany’s response included reductions in the number of forms people were required to fill out and an elimination in means testing, decisions credited with helping people get money more quickly. The $2 trillion CARES Act in March 2020, by comparison, gave states little guidance on how to modify their unemployment systems, Schank and McGuinness write.
“You really understand how much you need government when you need unemployment insurance or not just a vaccine sign-up, but a vaccine in your arm,” McGuinness said. “The whole idea that policy is only as good as its ability to deliver real material differences in people’s lives has just been on display. Everywhere you look, policies are meeting implementation challenges.”