I’m Improving Tech in Government—We Have a Long Way to Go
A U.S. government insider wants to see civic-oriented projects better help marginalized communities and erase inequality.
Since March, I’ve been working on or advising half a dozen projects responding to the COVID-19 pandemic—mostly as part of a digital innovation agency. I’ve worked on projects with federal agencies, partnerships and CDC-granted programs with non-government organizations. I’ve also advised state and local work and talked to many mutual aid groups around the U.S.
In the first weeks, when the virus was appearing in the U.S., I was finding epidemiologists to advise newsrooms around the country. Right before the president announced that 1,700 Google engineers were working on a testing map, my colleagues and I were looking for inroads to communication teams within the CDC. While the country was running out of toilet paper and PPE, my friends were looking to ship pallets of masks from around the world to distribute throughout hospitals in the U.S.
My work since the beginning of the pandemic has me thinking about the responsibility of those who work in civic and government tech, the limits of our power and the moral injury of watching the absolute collapse of the systems and institutions that are meant to serve us. Much has already been written on this administration’s failure to respond well to the pandemic, and there is still more untold. But I’m not here to spill the tea about the U.S. coronavirus response. Most of us who had to work closely with the administration aren’t just burnt out—we’ve suffered deep wounds from watching the administration up close. We have no hope for success or for justice with these people, and we barely have any hope for sunlight. But there is also another story to tell.
In a crisis, clear lines of communication are absolutely critical. It’s how you organize internally so everyone knows what to do, and it’s how you make sure the public knows what is going on. But in the early days of the pandemic, there were multiple teams working on different web tools, and none of us were allowed to talk to each other. The White House was working on at least two different coronavirus websites, and we weren’t given access to subject matter experts in the CDC. Instead, we had to get information through intermediaries approved by the administration. Communications teams were not allowed to talk about hot spots or surges. Political direction from the administration was controlling how much public health information could be published. Leadership cared more about page views and click-through rates than providing accurate and clear information.
In many ways, I’ve been lucky to spend my entire career in civic spaces. When people ask what it’s like, I often tell them that, as a designer, I have the privilege of building for those who need the most help, rather than for the most profit. At the end of the day, I get to focus on building real, social equity, rather than for shareholder dividends.
But that’s not entirely accurate.
At its best, civic-oriented user experience design ought to be to serve everyone—especially those who have been historically marginalized. But too often the highest-profile civic projects we work on don’t really help those who need it the most or create equity.
Digital Tools Don’t Always Democratize Access
When the president announced that Google was supposed to be building testing center maps, Google denied the claim. Within the government, several of us were trying to figure out whether a map was even possible (it wasn’t). No states or localities were keeping public databases of testing locations. The information that was available wasn’t machine-readable and was updated haphazardly. Information was changing constantly. Even if a database was built, all data entry would have required someone calling every state and county health department each day to get up-to-date information. Even now, there isn’t a publicly available dataset on the testing centers available. Technology was never the problem—basic communication and coordination is.
But the map was never going to happen because the moment the White House convinced Apple and Google to build their screening tools and digital contact tracing API (Application Programming Interface), they lost interest in anything else. The reality is that Apple and Google only support the latest devices with their contact tracing APIs—people with older devices, who often can’t afford to regularly update their phones, are shit out of luck. And as many state health departments still unable to fully staff their contact tracing operations, the communities that are hardest hit by the virus have the least support. Civic tech projects further highlight those disparities.
To help fight the pandemic, civic tech doesn’t have to be useless or incompetent. In Taiwan, the digital minister partnered with g0v, its local civic tech community, to build open data tools for people to buy masks. Hardware hackers started prototyping open source contactless thermometer hardware; civic technologists in Korea worked on apps to help contact tracers—not contact-tracing apps; and in the U.S., states and local governments have made better use of their technologists. The criteria for success wasn’t the tech, it was that leadership empowered the technologists, and they were able to work with experts and the community.
Even if they had built a map, it would have shown you that states prioritized testing centers in white communities, leaving Black and brown communities—ones that were, and still are, disproportionately affected by the pandemic—underserved. The idea that digital tools will democratize access is an illusion that only the privileged have.
When the IRS was trying to figure out how to build a system to send relief payments to taxpayers, they were asking themselves the right question: How could they get money to people as quickly as possible? But even with access to all the financial and identity databases, that only covered 60 percent of the population. Even if they could have verified bank accounts and sent money to people with systems like Zelle, the reality is that nearly 25 percent of households in the U.S. are either unbanked or underbanked. In other words, the people who would have needed that money the most would not have a way to get it in a timely fashion.
And this problem isn’t limited to the pandemic.
Relying on Digital Innovation Has Made Us Neglect Systemic Problems
Over the last several years, Veteran’s Affairs has put a lot of resources into digital innovation and service design. They regularly partner with federal digital innovation agencies, hire civic-oriented consultants and senior-level experience designers and legitimately try to grow their human-centered and service-focused practices. Furthermore, the VA is one of the few government agencies where the bipartisan position is that veterans ought to have the benefits they are due, and access to those benefits ought to be entirely seamless.
The truth is that it could be entirely seamless to automatically have the Department of Defense send all the necessary information to the VA after service members leave active duty. The technology, privacy and data interoperability problems are all solvable. The bigger problem is that if the process was entirely seamless, it would instantly bankrupt the VA because there aren’t enough resources. The VA is woefully underfunded and is kept that way so it can be held as an example of government incompetence. By concentrating on digital innovation as the solution and savior, we’ve entirely neglected the bigger systemic problems and the political circumstances that caused them.
But that digital savior mentality is prevalent throughout our field. Recently, The New York Times published a story about the work by the U.S. Digital Response, which started as a civic tech response to the pandemic. To be clear: the websites and tools they build are great. They are, for the most part, modern, accessible and easy to use. They provide information in ways that help people solve real problems. But they also reiterate the idea that the government needs saviors. That government is incapable of functioning without the clever technologists stepping in to save the day. That all we need to fix the government is a bunch of tech people to take a few weeks off from work to do some free labor.
But the reality is that it doesn’t solve the bigger problems of democracy. States like Pennsylvania and North Carolina keep finding new ways to try to disenfranchise voters from communities of color by limiting early voting hours, closing precincts and leaving voters without enough voting machines or ballots. Many states intentionally refuse to place polling locations on reservations and instead require people in Native American communities—who disproportionately live in poverty—to drive hundreds of miles to vote. Many states keep trying to create new poll taxes through voter ID requirements while also systematically removing people from the voter rolls weeks before elections.
By focusing on the problems that we see and understand, we turn blind to the needs of the communities that have been historically oppressed and pushed aside. But the ignorance in the people who do this work is not a coincidence. The unspoken reality is that many of the groups, like USDR, USDS, 18F and others, are started by friends who then recruit their friends. And for groups like USDR, who do recruit volunteers, the reality is that only the people who have the time and wealth to take a few weeks or months off of work and perform free labor. And that means that the only people who have the power to make strategic decisions about what to build and work on are most likely people with historic privileges, without the life experiences to understand marginalized communities. This means that even as we claim to try to expand access, civic tech’s neglect of the historic patterns of marginalization reinforces old injustices.
There Must Be More Diversity In Civic Tech
The reality is that civic tech and the nonprofit ecosystem in the U.S. and U.K. come from positions of benevolent paternalism, which is fundamentally entrenched in white supremacist ideology. If civic tech continues concentrating on improving government services rather than redistributing power and attending to the needs of the oppressed, we will never achieve equity. Or a real democracy.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The most successful projects I’ve seen—open data, public education, mutual aid, it doesn’t matter what—all start with asking what people actually need, and then take their word for it. They don’t prescribe solutions, they provide the tools and resources for people to collaborate and solve problems together. They build with, not for.
Technology alone can only go so far. We will never get to real equity or justice as long as the narrative is focused on how tech dives in to save the day. If we want diversity of experience in those who do civic work, then public service can’t be a sacrifice. We can’t only make this a vocation available for those who have the wealth to do work for free or take massive pay cuts. And we can’t just keep hiring our friends for the jobs that do exist.
Too many people in this space—especially white people of privilege—have spent so much time at the altar of scale that they forgot that they never figured out how to be effective in the first place. And this is not to say that technologists don’t have a role here. A lot of mutual aid groups are using clever technology to help them solve logistics and collaboration problems. The difference is that they all start by focusing on the communities with the most need, figuring out how to solve it, and then using technology to help improve the way they work.
The COVID Tracking Project is not a replacement for a functioning CDC. None of this is sustainable and it can’t replace well-functioning institutions. But that doesn’t mean we are helpless. If we start by figuring out what people need—looking for systems that are already in place and focusing on the needs of communities that have been harmed most—we can build things that are effective. By building with our communities and focusing on equity, we might just build the relationships and power we need to fix our institutions, too.