Digital public services — User experience matters10 Apr 2016
On October 1st 2013, millions of Americans rushed to their computers and navigated to healthcare.gov, a website released by the federal government that would let them shop for health insurance plans. This digital public service was a critical part of the implementation of President Obama’s most progressive reform, and first significant modification to the US public health system since the 1960s; the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
But things did not go as planned. As people tried to navigate the site, it crashed, ran slowly, and was difficult to use. Ultimately, it failed to deliver its promise of providing citizens with an easy way of buying health insurance. It seemed that the most banal of causes —a computer glitch— posed a serious threat to a public policy that took Congress many years of political struggle to push forward
The healthcare.gov debacle is just one example of how governments all over the world often fail to build usable, effective, and modern digital services. Similar stories are abundant: the online enrollment system for Buenos Aires’ schools has routinely failed for the last few years when parents try to secure a place for their children at their neighborhood school. The website of the Argentine tax agency is famously ugly and difficult to use, and most of its services only work with Internet Explorer even when a one-line patch would remedy that issue. As an Argentine web developer, I cringe every time I need to go in and pay my taxes.
Public outrage about these issues is reasonable. Most of us carry in our pockets an incredibly powerful computer rigged with all kinds of sophisticated sensors, which works 99% of the time. We buy products and services from our connected devices. We video-chat, Dick Tracy style, with our friends on the other side of the world while riding the subway. But still, we see how simple digital public services, often as simple as storing the contents of a form in a database, are near-impossible to navigate, and fall under the pressure of traffic typically considered light by a mid-sized website.
Why governments fail so often at building effective digital public services? The short answer is that building good software is hard. The intangible nature of computer programs, makes the complexity of building them difficult to comprehend. We expect our phone to just work, but it took Google 10 years, billions of dollars, and an astronomical amount of combined human-hours to develop the latest version of Android, the operating system that runs in 82% of the smartphones in the world. And they didn’t even start from scratch: Android runs on Java, a programming language which legacy goes back to the pioneers of computer science. But your phone still freezes from time to time.
Can we expect the understaffed and underfunded technology office of a city’s government to build a reliable online system? Yes, in the same way that we expect buses to run on time and streets to be pothole-free. But in order to do so, administrations should tweak a few aspects of their technology game.
Public procurement, a process burdened with impenetrable bureaucracy, is often cited among the causes that make public technology projects crash and burn. Clay Johnson, former head of the research arm of the open government watchdog Sunlight Foundation, has written extensively about this. In his 2013 New York Times op-ed about healthcare.gov, he says that “large federal information technology purchases have to end. Any methodology with a 94 percent chance of failure or delay, which costs taxpayers billions of dollars, doesn’t belong in a 21st-century government.”.
An undesirable side-effect of the intricate process of technology acquisition by the public sector, is that vendors that are awarded with contracts are those who are good at the tendering game, but not necessarily good at building user-facing software. Time and time again we see the usual corporate software vendors being awarded multi-million dollar contracts to build user-facing public services. Those companies build the pieces of infrastructure that power many mission critical systems, but they aren’t the ones designing the user interfaces that we love and use everyday. They’re not good at building experiences, and it shows.
Beautiful and engaging user interfaces are built by a very different kind of organization. The teams responsible for the polished user experience of Facebook, Twitter, or Tinder are small, nimble, and unencumbered by the rigid hierarchies and chains of command present in government. They’re breaking new ground, not just “modernizing” a decades-old process. Conway’s Law, for these teams, acts in their favor rather than against them.
Bringing these agile-minded hackers, designers, and product managers to the civil service will be a challenge. Positioning itself as an attractive employer for top technical talent might prove difficult for the public sector: promising engineering students are often hired by Silicon Valley companies before they graduate, with salaries over 120k/year.
Money is not the only problem. To capture great engineers, working for the government needs to be cool. Nicholas Negroponte touched upon this issue in his talk at the 30th Anniversary event of the MIT Media Lab: “[Parents] don’t encourage their kids to become a civil servant. It was never the cool stuff […]. There’s been a swing toward too much startup, too many little apps companies. Suddenly, too few students who graduate are worrying about big, hard problems, because they can do an app”.
Governments are starting to realize that they need to incorporate 21st-century practices: The United Kingdom created the Government Digital Service in 2011, and the US followed suit in 2013 with the creation of 18F, a digital services agency that’s run like a startup. Coincidentally, the failure of both countries’ healthcare website projects prompted the creation of these agencies.
The public sector should not wait for a catastrophe to happen to reform the way they build and acquire technology. Products out of Silicon Valley have raised the bar; users now expect to have fluid and engaging experiences when interacting with an online system. Technologists working in the public sector must be empowered, and their skills nurtured. Their work shouldn’t be considered a mere implementation detail of a public policy. After all, as the healthcare.gov debacle showed, a poor user experience and bad technical decisions can undermine years of political struggle.