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.

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.

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).

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The result is not just outdated criminal records that persist in limiting the opportunities of millions of people.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.

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?

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.