Digital is Not Always Better Than Paper

Digital was supposed to make things better. Platforms for peer-to-peer communication like Facebook and Twitter were supposed to connect and unite us and help us understand each other, ultimately ushering in an era of world peace, love, and understanding. They have done some wonderful things, but if peace, love, and understanding were the goal, we seem to have made some poor choices along the way. But digital has always held another seemingly more straightforward promise: easing the burden of complex information coordination tasks, like, for example, the administration of government programs. Digitizing records and creating online digital services should naturally increase the speed, accessibility, and fairness of programs, and at their best hold the promise of greater insight into their effectiveness through better data.

Apps that seamlessly get you a ride, or dinner, or file your expense report demonstrate that promise to us as consumers. But if you’ve ever been in line at a welfare office when the computer system went down, or gotten lost in a 50-option dropdown menu asking you to just enter the “street type” in your street address, you know that digital is not necessarily better than paper. Unfortunately, a lot of the cases of “not better than paper” are to be found in government (and, as last night’s Iowa caucus debacle demonstrated, in politics, but my focus is on government administration.) Much ink has been spilled on the price we’re paying for having gotten the promise of digital wrong in the consumer sphere, but do we really understand the implications of what’s gone wrong in government? And do we understand where we went wrong, and what we can do about it?

I want to answer that question. Last week, I stepped down from my role as executive director at Code for America, the non-profit I founded ten years ago. (I’m still working there part-time on a number of exciting projects and serving on the board, just not leading the organization on a day to day basis, and I’m thrilled that two very capable and aligned leaders have taken the reins.) Part of what I’m now working on is writing a book that will explore the questions above, because I think it’s a critical piece of the world we live in today that goes unseen and poorly understood. And when we are blind to the implications of the digital revolution for our government, when we don’t have the full diagnosis of what’s wrong with our society, we can treat the wrong symptoms.

We tend to think of the costs of government digital failures in terms of dollars, time, and scandal. What’s at stake is so much more than this. I worked in the White House during the launch of healthcare.gov; it’s easy to forget that what was at stake wasn’t just the first open enrollment period numbers, and a sense of embarrassment if the administration didn’t meet its goals, but the Affordable Care Act itself, a piece of legislation that had consumed all the political will of the presidency over many years. More importantly, what was at stake was the sense that government could be competent at its core job, or at least what the American public thinks its core job is: the delivery of services to the American public. What’s at stake is basic trust and faith in democracy as an effective form of government.

An organizing concept of the book is what I’ve been calling (and yes, I realize this is an incredibly unsexy term) the implementation gap. As a country, we pass a LOT of laws, write a lot of policies, craft an enormous amount of regulation. The problem is that a lot of it is never really implemented, or is implemented badly, with results that fall far short of the intention. Of the National Academy of Public Administration’s senior fellows, people who have spent their entire careers in policy making in federal government and achieved great honors, only 16% consider government proficient at designing policies that can actually be implemented. Was this number always this low? (Genuine question, please get in touch if you have insight here!) If it used to be higher, but has gotten worse over time, what role has the advent of digital in government played in its decline? Shouldn’t digital have made it easier to implement policies and programs?

What do I mean by the implementation gap?

Lax or uneven enforcement of law is a major contributor to the sense that most Americans have that policies are just words out the mouths of politicians. Wealth, privilege, and race can allow some members of our society to disregard the law, while less fortunate populations feel its iron fist. Other laws and regulations simply lack the resources for enforcement. But for the purposes of this book, my interest is in the instances (and I believe there are many) in which law and policy is poorly implemented, rather than poorly enforced, and the role that digital may have played in that outcome.

A good example of what I mean is a problem we’ve been working on a Code for America for the past several years: clearing outdated criminal records. In many states (including my home state of California), voter-approved propositions and legislation have sought to remove the burden of felony records for those with past offenses that are no longer even considered crimes. That’s a very good intention, and could have huge positive impact on the lives of the affected people, but myriad government stakeholders had cobbled together a multi-step, nearly impenetrable process by which people had to individually petition the court for the relief that the law ostensibly provided them. Because of the time, effort, and knowledge required to complete this process, hardly anyone was able to actually get the benefit intended by those laws. Our team at Code for America helped reimagine record clearance not as a process of driving paperwork through all necessary parts of a bureaucracy, but simply as changing a record in a database. But until our team intervened, major portions of laws like Prop 47 and Prop 64 were, for all intents and purposes, unimplemented.

How do we get digital government that’s not better than paper?

Here’s my basic thesis of the book. Thinking about the problem of records clearance as simply changing a record in a database seems obvious, but by and large, that’s not how our government works today. There’s a process government goes through, designed long before the digital age, and different groups own different parts of the process. It looks something like this (h/t to Jake Solomon).

Before computers became a thing, and a thing government used, implementation of policies and programs happened through people, paper, and processes that were pretty understandable, if sometimes still burdensome. When we tried to make things easier and faster by putting computers and the Internet on the job of implementing and coordinating those policies and programs, we also put a bunch of processes around how government buys and builds to those computer systems, and those got very big, and pretty clunky. Government procurement is one of those that got very big, and became a burden in itself, often making it harder to buy and build these systems.

Today, an enormous infrastructure of procurement and compliance sits between policy and its (digital) implementation, and the distance between the people in these two domains is vast; they are separated by time, by discipline, by policy and regulation, by organizational boundaries and organizational structure. More importantly, they no longer share a common language. There is little opportunity for people with an understanding of the digital world, those who would argue, for instance, for just changing the records in a database, to have a say in the policy and how it will be implemented. And there is little opportunity to conceive of government processes through the eyes of the people who will use them, both the public and the front line workers.

So the digital revolution has undoubtedly eased the burden of administration of government programs in many ways. It’s easier to file your taxes and receive social security, and computers now do much of the work that people used to do behind the scenes, increasing government’s capacity to help people. But in material and significant ways, digital has made some government functions worse, and certainly more expensive, not better and cheaper as we had hoped.

We have yet to benefit from the real promise of the digital age where it matters most, because we have misunderstood that promise.

The result is not just outdated criminal records that persist in limiting the opportunities of millions of people. It’s every time we hear that new laws or policies have been put in place, but regular people shrug and say “and yet nothing will change.” This skepticism of whether our government can actually do what it says it will is even more deeply felt in historically oppressed communities, who bear the worst consequences of government ineptitude. Earlier this month New York Times explored how the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates proposing ambitious new policies to address inequality “have yet to wrestle with how their promises of structural change must overcome historical distrust of the government in black communities.” In other words, they don’t buy it. And it’s not just black communities. Political scientist Joe Soss has shown that negative experiences accessing safety net benefits lead to lower rates of voting — for any candidate. The implementation gap is a massive, underexplored driver of political alienation.

This is what I mean about misdiagnosing what’s wrong with our democracy. We wonder why so much of the country is ready to blow our whole system up, but we’re not willing to look at why. The American public understands the implementation gap profoundly through lived experience, even if we wouldn’t use those words, and frustration with it has contributed to the powder keg of politics we live with today.

Help me.

Here’s where you come in. Let’s look at why. To write this book, I need to learn more about others’ experiences with the implementation gap, challenge my assumptions about the role of digital in that gap, and understand more deeply how things have gone awry in a wider variety of cases. Where have you seen government fail to get policy right or fail to implement policy, and what role did technology and design play in that failure? Would you be willing to talk to me and my collaborator, Ashley Meyers, about what you’ve seen?

We’re looking for stories from inside the machinery of government that explain what happens — or doesn’t — when the rubber hits the road for the American public. Can you help us understand what’s gone right or wrong behind the scenes? If so, let us know here, and we’ll get in touch.

Committed to government that works for people. Advisor to USDR. Member of the Defense Innovation Board. Past: Code for America, USDS. Mom. Keeper of chickens.

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