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Policy

How to make government technology better

In Boston, government technologies are run by in-house product managers who are able to make policy decisions.

October 23, 2023
Boston's old state house intact and surrounded by newer construction style skyscrapers
Stephanie Arnett/MITTR | Getty, Envato

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Last week I published a story about government and technology that I spent the better part of this past year reporting, and I think all of you will identify with it. 

Who hasn’t tried to fill in a government form online and run into at least one issue? Or even just thought, Hmm, why can’t I easily just do this basic civic activity online, like renewing your license? Can you even imagine a world where you could submit a digital request to fill a pothole in your neighborhood (and it actually got filled)? 

All too often, online experiences with government agencies are painfully inefficient. At the same time, examples of dangerous, eye-roll-inducing techno-solutionist thinking run rampant. This is all the more frustrating given that the world desperately needs big policy action right now—and there is a lot of opportunity to do so with new technological capacity and data. But the US government, at least, just isn't meeting the moment.

So I spent months trying to answer these questions, seeking to understand why the relationship between technology and government is so broken. 

Well, the answer is far more complicated than is often portrayed. I won’t get into all the reasons here—you can read about what I learned from top government tech people across the country in my story

In the piece, I decided to focus mostly on New York City because it’s approaching these challenges in ways you almost certainly wouldn’t expect. But one other place kept coming up again and again in my reporting as an example of somewhere doing tech pretty well: Massachusetts, and Boston in particular. 

To understand why, we actually need to back up for a second. Most of the experts I spoke with told me some version of the same story: they said that historically, government employees who are responsible for implementing policies at the ground level are not empowered to shape how citizens actually interact with these policies. For example, an agency responsible for getting people affordable housing doesn’t necessarily have the power to shape how the enrollment process works. In an age of user-centric technology, this boundary can be ruinous. 

“When Google or Apple or whatever builds a product, they have very close, tight channels for getting customer feedback and changing the product,” Santiago Garces, the chief information officer of the city of Boston, told me. “In government, a lot of times the product or the service is legislated. And legislators do get some feedback; there’s public comment and whatnot. But actually, it’s very rare to see the regulation getting updated because of feedback.” 

Boston, though, actually has a long history of prioritizing user experience research and human-centric design when it comes to digital services, finding ways to integrate feedback into policymaking. 

It’s been able to do this, at least in part, because the city follows an organizational approach similar to one that Jen Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and author of the fabulous book Recoding America, told me about: government technologies are run by in-house product managers who are able to make policy decisions. 

“Some of the most successful legislations are the ones that empower the programs and services where you really have the biggest ability to have tighter feedback loops with the constituents,” said Garces.

Garces told me that the city recently hired the first chief product officer in the country and is building a team of product managers and UX designers to work hand in hand with policymakers. The bottom line is that when people who actually implement policy are able to shape technology, we can get much better results. 

Harlan Weber, a former user experience designer fellow for Massachusetts’s IT department, told me about working on the Common Housing Application for Massachusetts Program (CHAMP) several years ago. He noted that they “went out and did research with tons of people in housing authorities and with government workers who'd have to use the thing.” They then used that feedback, he said, to shape the portal that finally let residents apply for housing benefits in a single streamlined online system.   

Boston has “a lot of inbuilt advantages,” said Weber, also the founder of Code for Boston. “And we’ve worked hard to press those advantages.” 

Massachusetts, he points out, is a highly educated, well-resourced state “that mostly believes that government can be part of the solution and not just part of the problem.” It also helps that Boston is home to a lot of tech companies and tech researchers working in close proximity to the center of government. This has allowed the city to build up an internal talent pool. 

Finally, Boston also has an established culture of prioritizing digital services. The mayor’s office created one of the first government innovation labs in the US, and the city was one of the first to have a chief digital officer and fellows from Code for America

All this said, digital services in Massachusetts are far from perfect (and in fact a recent investigation reveals significant problems with CHAMP and affordable housing). As I found in my reporting, there are simply no silver bullets that can fix the government's broken relationship with technology. It’s just an incredibly thorny problem (which is why this story is part of our new print issue devoted to hard problems!). But it’s critical that governments urgently work to improve digital services—our democracy depends on it. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about something Pahlka said to me about core government services: “If the American public doesn’t see government deliver, I think it’s less that they get driven toward one party or another, and more that they get driven away from government altogether.”

What else I’m reading

  • This story from the New Yorker about the inaccuracy of social media posts about the violence between Israel and Hamas is a thought-provoking reflection on the future of our information system, especially during times of crisis. 
  • Clearview AI, the face recognition system that scrapes the internet for photos, does not have to pay a $9 million fine to the UK’s Data Protection Agency. The company escaped the massive fee on the grounds that the agency doesn’t have jurisdiction over how foreign law enforcement use British citizens’ data. Clearview is facing several of these fines, which pose an “existential threat” to the company, according to this report from the New York Times’ Kashmir Hill. But this is a sign that perhaps the company will prevail.  
  • A 21-year-old computer science student at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, used AI to identify a word in a charred, 2,000-year-old, tightly wrapped scroll from Pompeii, damaged in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The scroll had been incomprehensible, but using a 3D x-ray scanner, the student was able to identify ink patterns and train AI to make out letters that spelled the word for “purple.”

What I learned this week

Google released a policy proposal focused on online safety for kids and teens. It offers several suggestions for legislation, including a risk-based approach for systems to estimate a user’s age and better tools for users to control recommendation algorithms. Perhaps most notable, it recommends a ban on personalized advertising that targets those under 18. Child online safety has been a hot topic in tech policy lately, as I’ve written about, and it’s interesting to get a perspective from Big Tech. 

Deep Dive

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