In all of this, politicians, engineers, and public health officials had to protect people’s information – and, perhaps even more difficult, convince the public that they were successful.
What would it take for government technology to work well in the United States? What are the foundations for a healthy technological infrastructure that can work for residents who need it?
We asked five experts to help us understand why it’s so hard to put good government technology in place, and to give them advice on how to create a healthy tech infrastructure for people who rely on results.
A split landscape of data
Harrell Co: “Government” in the United States means a lot of different things. After the federal government, we have 50 state governments, 3,000 counties – which play different roles in different parts of the country – and 20,000 municipalities.
So many different parties have pieces of the data needed to determine if you, in a particular location, are eligible and can get an appointment in a location with a vaccine stockpile. Not just governments, but also hospitals, clinics and pharmacies, they all need agreements to share this data and make their systems work together, which they certainly don’t.
After all of that, web designing – and accounting for people who don’t have access to the web – can actually be the easier part.
Alexis Madrigal: Most of the time, today’s technology is not that complicated. The problem is the system underlying the technology. When the federal government wants data that states don’t normally produce for their own work, someone has to put that data together. In an emergency, when everyone has shit to do, it’s not a priority. Without a national health system, there is no way to easily track tests or aggregate cases.
Legacy processes and systems, new vendors
Sha Hwang: I call working with legacy systems “software archeology”. It’s like houses built before the city’s infrastructure existed – they weren’t built to connect to the city’s plumbing or a power grid. You have to find the one person who has maintained the system for 30 years, updating a million-row spreadsheet with a crazy color-coding system.
For new systems, there’s a phrase you hear a lot: Government buyers want to “choke their throats” if something goes wrong. Large vendors like Deloitte and Accenture will call on all the people needed for a project. But by outsourcing the potential blame, agencies are also ceding all technical expertise. They are locked up. If the system fails, they have to rely on the vendors who dug the hole to get them out.
And Hon: No one is fired for hiring Deloitte or IBM. And when vendors keep doing the same kind of work they did wrong, there’s no incentive for them not to build a crappy system. Government requests for proposals are often written in such a way that they are suitable for only one or a few suppliers. You might see a yes or no box for “The provider must have worked on a health system that serves over 500,000 people.” I don’t care if this system exists, I want to know if the people who have to use it hate it.
Liana Dragoman: Many services are designed around the functioning of government, as opposed to the needs of residents. If you are trying to get a permit to use a soccer field, you shouldn’t need to know which specific service of Parks & Rec can give you that specific permit. Residents just want to go to the city’s website and fill out the form.
What significant mismatch have you seen between public needs and government technology?
Navigate a system that is complex by design
She: There is great regulatory complexity in the distribution of vaccines. But on the website or in the app, the experience boils down to, “Why can’t I find out if I’m eligible for a vaccine?” I just want a date.