I Tried to Fix the Federal Government’s Approach to Technology

It was much harder than I expected.

Animation: A very large Ethernet cable flying between two nondescript government buildings.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock, Flickr CC.

In 2011, I was 21 years old and working on a very small tech team at the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence. Every day, I watched as thousands of letters from the public arrived, and the office worked to sort, scan, tag, read, and respond to each message. It was our team’s responsibility to oversee the mailroom’s transition from paper to digital, and to make sure that every writer received a letter from the president assuring that they were being listened to and that their opinions mattered.

And they did. These letters were tallied by subject to show how many people wrote in about specific problems, such as losing a loved one due to lack of health insurance, struggling to deal with mounting student loan debt, and being unable to afford a home despite, as the writers often said, “always working hard and doing the right thing.”

Often, letters were about the many ways in which government services had failed them. It was jarring: I worked for an administration that was dedicated to improving outcomes for those who needed it most. Yet we received so many notes that showed clearly how we were stumbling—on the implementation of the very policies that were supposed to help.

I saw that stumbling even within the Office of Presidential Correspondence itself. As the administration tried to make the painful shift from paper to digital, from outdated to modern policymaking, it still had to keep every option available for accessibility. In the Office of Presidential Correspondence, this quickly became an unwieldy system. Phone calls? Available. Snail mail? Available. Online forms? Available. If for some reason you wanted to send a fax? Also available. Digitization was a good idea, but in practice it could feel unmanageable.

When I left the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Office of the Chief Technology Officer in 2012, it became clear that efforts to modernize were creating tension across all of government, not just in our little corner of the White House. While I focused my efforts on the intersection of technology and violence against women, the downstream effects of these failures were clear in other areas as well. First, most policy work—while well-intentioned—was often designed without putting the intended user at the center. Second, policies were implemented in ways that failed to meet users where they were. The lack of attention to users’ needs (and not just assuming their needs, but actually including them in the process) combined with outdated tools and methodologies meant that government services regularly failed the public. Finally, there existed no real, tangible feedback loop that would allow the government to respond to the needs of its constituents rapidly when a system failed them. The space between policymakers and the less-than-ideal outcomes their policies created was massive, meaning it was hard to notice when programs failed and even harder to change course and make fixes.

We hoped that bringing additional technical talent into government and pairing them with public servants would help to bridge some of these concerns. To that end, in 2012 we launched the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which was modeled after similar efforts to bring more technical talent into government, such as the Health and Human Services Innovation Fellows, the CFPB Design+Technology Fellows, and the Code for America Fellows. The idea was that these fellows, armed with best practices from the private sector, would come to government agencies and work on some of the nation’s most pressing and biggest issues.

You can clearly see our initial optimism in the press release that announced the fellows in August 2012. In it, we mention that 18 fellows “have agreed to spend six months in Washington to work on five high-impact projects [to] significantly improve how the Federal Government serves the American people.” We quickly learned, however, that improving the federal government in six months was just a tad unrealistic. This work takes much longer than we anticipated, it requires those with technical implementation skills to be fully integrated into particular agencies, and it’s difficult to be a team of one within an organization—deploying larger teams was crucial.

One of the first projects that the Presidential Innovation Fellows took on was the Open Data Initiative, which sought to expand the accessibility of government data for all citizens. The six fellows working on this project were assigned to different agencies, and they did some incredible work opening new data sets, creating challenges to encourage businesses to find creative uses of data, and holding events to publicize how people could utilize this data to their advantage. But still, there was a disconnect between what the fellows could do alongside career public servants, and what it would take to really transform government service delivery.

Then came the failure of Healthcare.gov—a disaster that truly gave us the visibility we needed to make waves. (You might think that the mere name would give me flashbacks, but I’m pretty inured to it now.) It was then that President Obama fully understood that any successful policy needed technical support in order to be implemented well—and that it had to be baked in from the beginning. Otherwise, it could be killed not by Congress or the Supreme Court, but by a website error that hobbled our work and undermined the public’s confidence.

And so, in 2014, we launched the U.S. Digital Service, an in-house tech team for the government that sought to prevent these implementation missteps before they happened. Building on lessons learned from the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and the Government Digital Service in the U.K., we established a plan for building a “team of teams” model that would bring additional engineers, designers, and product managers into government.

We operated under a few simple principles, the first of which was that our projects should be well-scoped and represent problems that were concrete and manageable. For example, a lot of people might have wanted us to take on all of immigration reform—but the first step to solving a massive problem is actually starting small.

When we first began working with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in July 2014, we started with what we called a “discovery sprint,” which was a short, intense period of research to learn everything we could about how a specific part of the immigration process worked from the perspective of both an immigrant and the staff at USCIS. We learned that an immigration application, once completed, could take more than six months to process. The system they used was paper-based, backlogged, and confusing, to say the least.

So following our mandate to start with something well-scoped and concrete, we worked with them to digitize the I-90, a form that everyone looking to renew or replace a green card has to fill out. It might seem tiny to work on one form in a giant sea of forms in an even bigger ocean of confusing policy. But three days after the launch of the new I-90 pilot system, the site had seen close to 2,000 applications. The team used the applicant feedback from those three days to fully launch a little while later, better than it was the first time. Our work on something small had made real, tangible change for thousands of immigrants by making it easier for them to navigate the form.

Most importantly, though, starting small set us up to fix much bigger things. Raph Majma, a Presidential Innovation Fellow turned USDSer, later went on to lead work that identified similar inefficiencies in the refugee admissions process, cutting months off the time it took for refugees to be granted access to the United States.

The I-90 project showed us just how critical it was to have buy-in from the actual agencies we were working with. Support from the White House or the Office of the Chief Technology Officer was helpful, but it wasn’t enough to make sustainable change. We tried to be conscious of this moving forward, but there were inevitably projects that didn’t work because the agencies saw us as coming in to tell them where they had made mistakes, instead working with them to make the systems better overall.

In 2015, I was on a team that spent a while in West Virginia conducting a discovery sprint to improve gun background checks with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). We had been called on to assess the readiness of the new NICS system they were about to launch. When we came in, the Department of Justice had already devised updates to the system that we believed would create significant unintended consequences. (Unfortunately, I can’t disclose exactly what they were.) We were able to convince them to take some recommendations that would fit into the product they had already built, but we couldn’t fix any of the root causes for the problems we had identified, such as states’ failure to submit data to NICS that would keep guns out of the hands of people who are prohibited. So much of what was wrong—and still is wrong—with the system is rooted in the fact that ultimately, data submission is voluntary. The information needed to determine if someone should legally own a gun—such as convictions and arrests—is held by states and rarely passed to the FBI. The FBI has no legal way to force compliance, so people who shouldn’t have guns can end up with them anyway.

What I realized then, and have been wrestling with since, is that so much of our work uncovered issues that weren’t tech related—they were policy oversights. The best thing we could have done for NICS was increase compliance with data submissions—and that’s a policy challenge. Tech certainly would have helped in making data transfer from states to the FBI more efficient, but it meant nothing if the policy preceding it was ineffective.

Now, looking back on my time at USDS, it is frustrating that we didn’t get to work on much preventative policy. We were too busy putting out fires to force sustainable culture change that would encourage policymakers to think about the impacts of their decisions down the line. I’m happy that USDS is still around in the Trump administration because they continue to do good work. Veterans still need benefits, and immigrants still need naturalization support, and low-income people still need access to health care.

Like many of my former colleagues, I left the government after the Obama administration came to an end. But several of us have reunited at New America to form the Public Interest Technology team, where we continue to try to bring technologists into the policy space. We’re trying to address all the stumbling blocks we found at once by working on better policy design, implementation, and pivoting ability when consequences arise. (Disclosure: New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.) We’ve taken a lot of different approaches. For instance, we hosted a summit with leaders of rural-focused nonprofits to incorporate experiential knowledge into the 2018 Farm Bill. We also helped Los Angeles County host a series of conversations with community organizations and law enforcement to inform their youth diversion and development policies.

One of our most ambitious projects has been working with the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families on updating their foster-care technology and policy. By bringing in design tactics from the private sector, like creating a “journey map” that shows the experience of becoming a foster-care parent, our team has been able to identify opportunities for improvements in the process and make suggestions for streamlined policy. Working with Rhode Island has been one small step for our larger policy work but is indicative of the type of change we’d like to see in government: thoughtful, resourceful, and conscious of up-to-date options.

And of course, we’re still figuring it out. We’re hitting new stumbling blocks every day on our path to smoothing over the established one. It’s hard work. But the people in this country deserve policy that reflects their needs and serves them the way a government should. Stumbling blocks and all, we’re getting there.