On Tuesday, the Biden administration debuted its new website where Americans can order up to four free rapid coronavirus test kits for their homes. Run by the U.S. Postal Service, the site launched a day early in beta form so the government could address any kinks. “We can’t guarantee there won’t be a bug or two,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “but the best tech teams across the administration and the Postal Service are working hard to make this a success.”
There was in fact one significant bug, which mostly seemed to affect apartment dwellers. The site appeared to treat all buildings as a single address eligible for one order, no matter how many households lived in it. And so some users received an error message stating that their order was a duplicate and could not be processed, possibly because another tenant in the building had already placed one.
A White House spokesman told the Verge, “It’s a really small percentage and USPS will be sending our statement on this shortly.” In the meantime, some people seem to have found a temporary fix by putting their apartment number into the first line of the address field instead of the second.
But honestly, that’s the kind of issue a beta test is meant to root out. And in general, the most remarkable thing about the site is that it’s refreshingly simple and easy to use for a government work. Really! All you have to do is pop over; enter your name, email, and address; and click “Check Out Now,” like you’re ordering anything else on the internet. The page is clean, loads quickly, and looks good on mobile. I ordered my four tests in about 30 seconds and quickly got a confirmation email.
The Twitter reviews overall seem to be positive. A sample:
A low bar to clear? Maybe! But the feds have notoriously had trouble building decent consumer websites. Healthcare.gov was an utter disaster when it rolled out in 2014. More recently, the IRS website where nonfilers could claim the enhanced child tax credit last year was a visual and functional train wreck. (As Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project put it: “It looks like crap and it’s not really usable.”)
In contrast, the new COVID test site seems to be working more or less fine despite a massive rush of traffic (at least I haven’t found any reports of crashes, despite a good deal of searching). And it’s debuting only a month after President Joe Biden announced that Americans would be able to order free tests at home.
A few thoughts about about all this:
• First: It speaks to the generally rough state of Joe Biden’s presidency that a functioning website counts as a notable win. But here we are. A big part of Biden’s campaign pitch was that he’d restore basic competency to the federal government after the Trump administration’s constant bungling. Thanks to the turbulent withdrawal from Afghanistan, inflation, and the White House’s frequently indecisive response to the lingering pandemic, most of the public seems to think Biden has failed to live up to that promise. So, anything working right now counts as points on the board.
• Second: Biden probably should have taken action on rapid testing earlier (ditto on the administration’s just-announced plan to distribute free N95 masks at pharmacies). It was just in early December that Psaki scoffed at the idea of sending everyone free tests. And currently, the USPS site says that tests aren’t expected to ship until late January and will take an estimated seven to 12 days. But hey, better late than never.
• Third: This is a reminder that the U.S. Postal Service is actually pretty decent at customer service when it isn’t being hobbled by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy or worker absences due to COVID. If it ever did get into basic banking, as progressives and many members of Congress would like, I bet its services would be at least as user-friendly as what private financial institutions offer.
• Fourth: This is a reminder that if Democrats want people to trust the government, it’d probably be worth it for them to spend more energy and money on making sure services are user-friendly, on both the federal and state level. People really appreciate it when things just work.
Of course, all of this needs a caveat: We won’t really know how Biden and the Postal Service did with this basic logistical task until tests start arriving in mailboxes. Hopefully, that part goes off relatively smoothly too.