Creating Simpler, More Effective Government Services for Everyone

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The GovLab, Pivotal and the 21st Century Democracy and Technology Meetup recently hosted a talk by Jen Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America and former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer, on deploying simpler, more effective government services for everyone. Pahlka shared insights gained from her time leading efforts to improve government services from the outside, through the Code for America fellowship program, and from the inside, through efforts like the U.S. Digital Services Playbook. The assembled audience comprised software engineers, policy researchers, design professionals and others looking for new pathways for improving government services and their impacts on citizens’ lives.

Although there is seemingly no shortage of interest in deploying technology in government to improve services, Pahlka argued that for technology to have its intended effects on the public good, government must recognize that technology “is not something you buy, it’s something you do.” In other words, leveraging government technology is a process to design, implement, manage and iterate upon, not a commodity to purchase.   

With that in mind, Pahlka shared a number of key lessons learned across a number of Code for America initiatives – from a crowdsourced map for identifying blight in New Orleans to an efforts to reduce bench warrants in Atlanta to a more innovative food stamp program in California – as well as her time in the U.S. government.

Key Takeaways

Move from Apps to Ops

  • Although there is no shortage of civic apps that seek to improve public life by working around government, Pahlka emphasized the potential of lightweight technology interventions that work with government to the benefit of all parties involved.  
  • In order for this potential to take hold, though, there needs to be a recognition that technology in government isn’t about the tech itself, “it’s about our ability to govern.” Many of the most transformative uses of technology in government, she argued, are directly tied to behind-the-scenes government processes, improving their sustainability.

Build for What People Need

  • While the impact of technology in government can often be tied to an intervention’s potential to actually improve government operation, Pahlka also highlighted the importance of understanding users, i.e., people, and their needs – especially at this current moment of low public trust in government.
  • This focus on user needs is meant to be front and center in the U.S. Digital Services Playbook, which draws on lessons learned within and outside government to improve the effectiveness of government digital services. The first of the Playbook’s 13 steps is: “Understand what people need.” While seemingly self-evident, this articulation (and its clear prioritization) is instructive. The Playbook notes that, “The needs of people — not constraints of government structures or silos — should inform technical and design decisions.” The checklist that accompanies this guidance features items like: a) “Early in the project, spend time with current and prospective users of the service;” and b) “Create a prioritized list of tasks the user is trying to accomplish, also known as ‘user stories.’”

Always Be Iterative and Agile

  • Throughout Pahlka’s talk, she pointed to examples where the first or second plan of action for addressing a given problem was pivoted away from in favor of a more targeted, simpler, and often cheaper solution. In some cases, this was due to a tendency for government to view procurement, and investing large sums of money in traditional government technology vendors, as the only means for solving problems.
  • Pahlka pointed to examples, like the New Orleans BlightStatus, where relationship-building and direct (i.e., in-person) engagement successfully uncovered implementable solutions to problems, belying the belief that expensive, monolithic tech products are always the best way forward.

Don’t Focus Exclusively on the Most Visible Problems

  • Most of the issues Pahlka discussed touched on the lives of lower-income citizens and vulnerable populations. After telling these stories – from issues with accessing food stamps to arrests following an inability to pay simple traffic tickets – she pointed out that the bungled rollout of Healthcare.gov was daily frontpage news, helping to lead the charge toward improved agility and usability for the platform. The type of government dysfunction experienced by the poor, however, rarely raises the type of public ire, or, indeed, even public recognition that can force the iteration of broken government services. Her point drove home the fact that in order to “create simpler, more effective government services for everyone,” we cannot simply focus on the visible problems experienced by the middle and upper class.   

For more information on innovating government service delivery, check out the GovLab Digest, Open Governance Research Exchange (OGRX) and GovLab Academy.