Have you ever applied for food stamps? In California, where I live, you can apply online. My friend Kathy, who has helped members of her family and dozens of people in her community of Vietnamese immigrants apply for government benefits over the years, is grateful for the online application. It has saved her countless hours waiting in line at county welfare offices. And she got to be something of an expert at it, which is important, because the application itself is over50 web pages long, with hundreds of questions, some of them confusing or even scary. “Have you or any member of your family been found guilty of trading SNAP benefits for guns, ammunition, or explosives after September 22, 1996?” Most people who start the application without help don’t finish it.
Now there’s another way to apply for CalFresh (California’s food assistance program). This online application form, developed by a team at Code for America, has a handful of questions and takes just a few minutes. It also works on a smartphone or tablet, so Kathy can use it when she’s out in her community. In a world where you can summon a car with a tap of your phone, shouldn’t government technology be as good as what we use at home? Shouldn’t it show basic respect for the people who use it?
Not everyone agrees that government should provide food assistance for families who need it. But we can all agree that it makes no sense for families (and the workers in government who serve them) to spend untold hours navigating bureaucracy. Nor does it make sense to spend hundreds of billions of dollars nationally on technology to administer these programs, when the cost of comparable technology has fallen so dramatically in the past decade.
This week at Davos, much will be said about how fast the world is changing. When government is discussed, there will be a consensus that it needs to change faster in order to keep up. Perhaps there will even be mentions of the United States Federal government’s progress towards a user-centered, iterative, and data-driven approach through the work of the United States Digital Service in the White House, which I’m proud to say I helped start. But too few leaders will talk about the quality of digital services that serve everyday people. They should.
The secret to government that keeps up isn’t necessarily fancy data science, though that can help. It’s making modern digital services that work simply, clearly, and quickly. Or as Tom Loosemore, former Deputy Director of the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) has said, it’s “government services that are so good they were previously unimaginable and run at fraction of today’s cost.” What we’d have as a nation if we achieved that vision isn’t just a better relationship between citizens and their government, we’d also be able to tell if policies were working as intended “within days or weeks, not decades,” to further borrow from Loosemore. Today, government officials are used to receiving binders of data every two to five years. But the same way that Lyft and Uber use the real-time customer data to help supply meet demand, government officials could have real time or near-real time data about the services they administer. That’s government that moves at the speed of the 21st century.
I’ve heard too many times that this vision is too tall an order, and that the skills we need to make modern digital services aren’t to be found in government. That simply isn’t true. Tell that to all the folks in local government I’ve worked with who are transforming their institutions. Tell that to my friend Kathy. She was a teen when she started helping her friends and family with food stamps, and she went on to a successful career at Google. But recently, she was offered the chance to use her skills in government as part of the USDS, and now she is helping make healthcare and other services work better not just for her community, but for all Americans. She’s part of a movement that believes that government, in the US and abroad, can work for the people if it’s made of and by the people. Making government work better is a big job, which is why it needs everyone.
This post is part of a “Thriving in a World of Change” series produced by The Huffington Post and Ashoka. The series is part of The Huffington Post’s coverage of The World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, and explores how, in an age of unprecedented change and connectivity, we must transition quickly to an everyone-a-contributor world with empathetic ethics at its core. Read all the posts in the series here.
Update: The first version of this post directly compared Code for America’s 10 minute CalFresh application with the CalWIN enterprise system. After further consideration and reflection, I realize this isn’t a meaningful comparison. While CalWIN does include an online application for CalFresh, it also includes dozens of other systems critical to California’s social service programs, including eligibility determinations, benefit disbursement, and case management. The public application website is just a small piece of the puzzle; but a critically important one made much simpler and easier to use through Code for America’s application.