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  • Dan Connors

Can computer coders make government more user-friendly?

Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better

"We strive to reach people and communities who have been left out by leveraging our resources to create a more just and equitable world. We believe that we all do better when we all do better." Code for America

Ever since the Reagan Revolution of the 1980's, Americans have had a hate/tolerate relationship with government. The days when the New Deal and Great Society brought us Social Security, Medicare, and big government were at their end.

Republican administrations under Reagan, Bush, and Trump cut federal budgets, and made working for the government seem uncool. In the tech sector, especially, computer professionals preferred Silicon Valley and potential riches over less lucrative government jobs. How has this impacted the delivery of important government services like the IRS, VA, Medicare, or the Military?

In the 21st century, this tech deficit has hurt the administration of vital laws that the nation still depends on through its government agencies. In 2020, when Covid-19 shut down many businesses and caused unemployment to skyrocket, congress passed laws that were meant to help a lot of people in immediate need. But it's one thing to pass a law and something entirely different to actually implement it. Congress depended on the states to dole out money through their unemployment systems during the pandemic, and many states were woefully unprepared. Millions of people tried to access state unemployment systems and were turned away because the systems couldn't handle them. How could this happen?

This and many questions like it are answered in Recoding America- why government is failing in the digital age and how we can do better, by Jennifer Pahlka.

Ms. Pahlka was deputy chief technology officer under President Obama and founder of Code for America, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the delivery of benefits with user-friendly access.

There are two big problems that are inter-related. First- the computer systems that the government relies on are huge and complicated, built in layers of computer code that has evolved as technology has evolved. There are a limited number of people who understand how it all ties in together, and many of them are nearing retirement. The second problem is a political one- many Americans and politicians don't really like government, and don't want people (especially people they don't approve of), to get any benefits, so they make the system as inaccessible as they can to start with.

The book details how the food stamp program, SNAP, had an online application in one state with 212 questions that users had to answer before getting a decision on benefits, leading to almost half of the eligible people not being enrolled. Other states, like Florida, deliberately made unemployment and Medicaid enrollment sites deliberately hard to navigate, and when Covid hit, many people suffered needlessly, even though help was available through the federal government. The whole point of pandemic assistance was to help people temporarily who were unable to work so that they wouldn't fall deeper into despair and poverty. But the politics of helping people is tricky, and in our capitalist society relying on government help is seen as weakness. But expecting ordinary people to never need any type of help is unrealistic and cruel.

One section that amazed me was that when politicians panicked during Covid, they threw money at the unemployment agencies to hire more workers, and it radically backfired making things worse. The new employees had to be trained, which takes a lot of time, and the people who know how to do the important work were taken away from that work to train the new people. Many agencies have bottlenecks where very specific knowledge and training is required, and if these people retire or are otherwise occupied, very little can get accomplished. Thus one of Pahlka's main recommendations of the book is the need for more trained and experienced IT professionals to replace the many who are expected to retire in the next few years. Given the salaries that Silicon Valley can provide, that may be a tough sell.

Pahlka describes bureaucracy as a waterfall, with rules and regulations falling down on agencies from on top and being carried out by minions on the bottom rungs. The problem with waterfall systems is that important information often can't flow the other way. Policies can take years to develop and carry out, and they rarely work as designed right away. Workers fear the chain of command, and instead follow instructions to the letter, with the results often missing the mark with what was intended by the politicians who dreamed it up. She describes some of the more expensive disasters as concrete boats- expensive structures that are doomed to sink once put into service. This same principle happens in private industry too, but failures there can be more impactful and force decision makers to listen more closely to end users.

I have never worked for the government, nor do I have the slightest idea how to code, and this book opened my eyes up to a new world that impacts me and everyone else around me. As an accountant, I work with the Internal Revenue Service and state agencies quite a bit, and it gave me some insight into what they are facing. The IRS has been starved for funds for over a decade, and they are tasked with enforcing an impossibly complex tax code that few people understand, including them. It amazes me how they manage to incorporate all these constantly changing laws with their other duties of sending out stimulus checks, dealing with delinquent taxpayers, and collecting money. The two things that have suffered the most- customer service and audits, are the things that have huge impacts on their perceived effectiveness, but they can only do so much with an aging workforce and out of date technology.

The book covers the disastrous rollout of, and how the website didn't work at first. It took months of experienced coders to clean up that mess, and Republicans had a field day pointing out the failures. But it also covers the quick startup of, and how that site worked perfectly to get Americans free Covid test kits in just seconds, making it seamless for so many to see if they were infected.

Thankfully this book isn't too technical, making it an easy and fascinating look inside the world of both government and computer coding. The politicians who dislike government frankly like for it to fail, and like to point out any time it comes up short. Like most people, I think government has an important place in society, and want to see it succeed as long as it remains responsive to citizens through democracy. Responsive government can be a lifesaver in times of crisis, and good government shouldn't be that controversial. The people at Code for America are "people-centered problem solvers working to improve government in meaningful ways," and it's nice to know that somebody out there is looking out for us when government and private industry fail to do so.

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