Policy

Biden promised to digitize the government. Getting it done won't be easy.

A December executive order requires federal agencies to overhaul clunky systems. Meet the team trying to make that happen.

the White House

The dramatic uptick in people relying on government services, combined with the move to remote work, rendered inconvenient government processes downright painful.

Photo: Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images

Early last year, top White House officials embarked on a fact-finding mission with technical leaders inside government agencies. They wanted to know the answer to a specific question: If there was anything federal agencies could do to improve the average American’s experience interacting with the government, what would it be?

The list, of course, was a long one.

Before the pandemic began, anything having to do with filling out government paperwork — renewing passports, filing for assistance, applying for permits — ranked somewhere near getting a root canal on most Americans’ list of favorite activities. Since COVID-19, it’s been more like getting a root canal without novocaine. The dramatic uptick in people relying on government services, combined with the move to remote work, rendered inconvenient government processes downright painful. Like, good luck faxing that form that requires a wet signature to an office in D.C. — no one’s stepped foot in there for months. Not that most government websites are much better.

“COVID really shined a light on the fact that there were some interactions people had with the government that needed to be improved, full stop,” said Clare Martorana, chief information officer of the United States, who was among the officials involved in these conversations.

Throughout last year, Martorana, agency officials and others narrowed that wish list to the realm of the possible. And last month, President Biden codified it in an executive order which requires 17 agencies to make 36 specific upgrades that will ideally make Americans' experience dealing with the government suck less. That list includes creating a fully digital passport renewal process and an online system for applying for disaster assistance, among other changes that revolve around major life events. All of it, the White House said when the order was announced, is on track for completion within a year.

It’s an extraordinary technological, design and policy lift for a government that has, you could say, a few other items on its to-do list. This week’s rollout of a new federal COVID-19 test distribution website already got off to a rocky start. Similar efforts to modernize government by the White House and Congress have come and gone without making much of a perceptible dent in the vast bureaucracy of the U.S. government. Now, it’s up to a small army of technologists across agencies and inside the White House to buck that trend and turn Biden’s words into action.

Follow the form to 1933

At least some of that work will fall to Mina Hsiang, the new administrator of the United States Digital Service, who was part of the team that famously swooped in to save Healthcare.gov’s calamitous launch in 2013. That digital response team later gave birth to the U.S. Digital Service, where Hsiang spent a two-year stint before founding a spinoff digital team inside the Department of Health and Human Services.

Hsiang left government to work in the health care sector in late 2017, but returned to the White House last year to find that a lot has changed since those early years. “In my first term, if I walked into an agency to work on a program, there were no user researchers — like nobody,” she said. “Now, you always walk in and there are many things still for us to do, but most programs have a user researcher and understand the concept of user experience.”

 Mina Hsiang Mina Hsiang, administrator of the United States Digital Service.Photo: White House

That will be key to implementing the changes outlined in this particular executive order. The order “is a change in frame,” said Jen Pahlka, former deputy chief technology officer of the United States and founder of the nonprofit Code for America. “[It says] if it is burdensome on the customer, it is a problem.”

One reason why government applications and forms have become so tediously detailed and take hours to complete is because, traditionally, every relevant agency — and lawyer for that agency — gets to have a say in what goes on the form, often with little regard for what that means for the people filling it out.

And those forms can have a needlessly long lifespan. “If you follow a form, you sometimes follow it back to 1933,” said Jodi Leo, chief delivery officer at the tech firm Nava. That’s not hyperbole. Nava recently helped the Department of Veterans Affairs overhaul its clunky benefit appeals process, which had left thousands of veterans stuck in limbo. By removing a single form that dated back to 1933 from that process, Leo said, the VA was able to significantly cut down on the amount of time veterans had to wait to get an appeal processed.

Other times, government requirements border on nonsensical for the task at hand, like requiring natural disaster victims to navigate multiple government websites with extensive supporting documentation, when everything they own may have been washed away.

But past efforts to modernize these services have often focused too much attention on the technology itself, while failing to address the flawed policies and overly detailed requirements underpinning that technology. The new order, Hsiang stresses, is not just about technology.

“If you have a terrible process, and then you codify it in technology, it will be terrible technology,” said Hsiang. “A lot of this is much more about setting a tone. At any fork in the road where there are two options, choose the thing that's better for the user.”

Tripling down

There are other reasons to believe this order may have more luck than earlier attempts. For one thing, Congress poured $200 million into the USDS last year and $1 billion into the Technology Modernization Fund as part of the American Rescue Plan last year. It’s less than they need, said Matt Lira, former special assistant to President Trump for Innovation Policy and Initiatives, but still, “That’s more funding than they’ve ever had.” Prior to the American Rescue Plan, the TMF had only ever received $175 million.

Lira said the Trump White House had considered a similar executive order and even drafted a proposal last fall. But the change in administration cut that idea short. And he argues such a mandate wouldn’t have been possible earlier in Trump’s term. “The institutional capacity wasn’t there to do it,” he said.

Lira said he’s encouraged that the Biden administration has “tripled down” on this issue, noting the particular significance of having people like Hsiang and Martorana involved. Like Hsiang, Martorana also worked for the USDS, where she focused on digital modernization of the VA, and later was CIO of the Office of Personnel Management. “I’ve long been optimistic that people with that depth of experience would get to these leadership positions,” Lira said. “That has finally occurred, and that’s really exciting.”

Clare Martorana Clare Martorana, the U.S. CIO.Photo: White House

Hsiang, Martorana and their teams will be heavily involved in guiding agencies through this process, but, Hsiang said, “The agencies are the ones who really own these commitments.”

The challenge ahead

For all of the advantages Biden’s plan has over prior attempts, it’s hardly a sure thing. Even with experienced leaders in the White House and a new generation of user researchers scattered throughout government agencies, Martorana said there are currently “thousands” of open tech and cybersecurity positions across the government. Poaching talent away from cushy tech jobs has been a struggle since the earliest days of USDS, but it was a particular challenge during the Trump administration, given the ideological differences between the president and the largely left-leaning tech workforce.

“We always had to have the conversation about the apolitical nature of this work,” Lira said of recruiting in the Trump years. The Biden administration may not have to have quite the same talk, but hiring may prove challenging nonetheless.

Another substantial difficulty will be breaking down silos between government agencies that all operate a little differently and even have their own definitions of what does or doesn’t make a person eligible for a given government program. Building cleaner user interfaces will require simplifying those definitions and convincing agencies to sacrifice some specificity and legalese for the sake of simplicity. That may also require the USDS and 18F, another digital services group within the federal government, to harmonize their work. A recent Government Accountability Office report found that the two groups often offer agencies “duplicative IT guidance” and lacked “an established, documented coordination approach.”

But perhaps the biggest obstacle the administration faces in actually seeing these promises through is that it’s dealing with so many other competing crises, Pahlka said: “In six months, is this still going to be the biggest priority?”

She argues, of course, that it should be. As COVID-19 has clearly shown, fixing broken government systems isn’t a distraction from core issues: It is a core issue. “Staying on customer experience and improving those services is how you deal with the crisis,” Pahlka said. “Our crises are always worse because we haven’t developed these capacities.”

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