Anya Schiffrin, a Senior Lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, reviews Pahlka’s new book, Recoding America: Why Government is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better.
For anyone who would like to see the US government become more reliable, efficient and streamlined (more like Estonia!) by deploying the best of what tech has to offer when delivering services, Jennifer Pahlka’s book is gripping and important reading.
A former Deputy Chief Technology Officer at the White House during the Obama years, Pahlka founded Code for America, a non-profit which helps governments deliver services, and helped found the U.S. Digital Service. A key member of the “govtech” movement, Pahlka explains the failures of government service delivery online and what it takes to improve it. Her book is more than just a guide to how technology is designed by government. Pahlka provides insights into how bureaucracies work, and what needs to change.
Along the way, Pahlka recounts hair-raising horror stories from the inside. One example: during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the state of California hired more help to push out unemployment checks quickly, officials realized the processes were so cumbersome that hiring more people actually slowed the system down. Pahlka was also in the White House when healthcare.gov, the famous Obamacare website, was rescued after it crashed shortly after its launch in 2013.
Her explanation of the problems will be familiar to anyone who has worked for large organizations with inefficient software. First, well-meaning civil servants add so many questions, procedures and checks that they end up creating applications with hundreds of questions that are impossible to answer. Pahlka describes in detail the travails caused by eligibility forms for health care or SNAP or other government programs which take hours to fill out. This leads to frustration as low-income citizens discover that they can’t fill out the forms on their phones, or that public library computers have browsers that don’t work with government websites or time limits that don’t give applicants the 90 minutes needed to fill out an application form with 200 questions on it.
Second, since the 1990s the government has been outsourcing technology design, so now there is not enough expertise in government. Instead, the government relies on contractors who are often good at getting government contracts, but not at delivering services that real people need.
When confronted with problems, many government employees have a mind set that emphasizes compliance with internal processes but not outcomes for the public. No one gets fired for producing a poorly-functioning website, but they might get investigated. And when there is an investigation, civil servants protect themselves by showing that they followed all the processes.
Thus many bureaucracies end up with layers and layers of rules and software which makes quick responses more or less impossible, and bogging down everyone involved with the system–the civil servants as well as the people in need of benefits.
The solution, Pahlka reminds us, lies in part by keeping real users in mind and designing for their needs. One of the most memorable stories Pahlka tells is that of technologist Alan Williams who signed up for SNAP just to see what it was like. He became thinner and more gaunt as he experienced the reality of not being able to buy a sufficient amount of healthy food. Innovations he and his team created included things like letting every SNAP recipient check their balance before they go to the supermarket, a small innovation that helps SNAP recipients plan their food budgets and avoid the humiliation of discovering at the register that they can’t pay for dinner.
More than just thinking differently about product design is the need to spend money differently. “We need to create positions within government charged with digital strategy and product management, and we need to make sure those are filled by people with the proper expertise,“ Pahlka argues. She also believes that starting small and making sure something works is an essential alternative to how things are usually done. “Throwing more money at bigger contracts is the first misguided solution our leaders go to. Writing more policy is the second. We constantly add to the laws, rules. Regulation, and guidance that govern how agencies and departments at all levels build and buy technology. In practice, these policies tend to backfire,” Pahlka writes.
Those of us who believe in government and want to see it help citizens, efficiently provide services and collect taxes would do well to read and absorb Pahlka’s lessons. The problems she describes are urgent and her diagnosis and solutions are persuasive.
Anya Schiffrin is the director of the Technology, Media, and Communications at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a lecturer who teaches on global media, innovation and human rights. She writes on journalism and development, investigative reporting in the global south and has published extensively over the last decade on the media in Africa. More recently she has become focused on solutions to the problem of online disinformation, earning her Ph.D. on the topic from the University of Navarra. She is the editor of Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Reporting from Around the World (New Press, 2014) and African Muckraking: 75 years of Investigative journalism from Africa (Jakana 2017). She is the editor of Media Capture: How Money, Digital Platforms and Governments Control the News (Columbia University Press 2021)