The Federal Government’s Technology Problem is Actually a Design Problem


If you want to help federal tech, start with design, according to USDS consultant Dana Chisnell.

The biggest problem with government technology may not actually be technology; a more likely culprit is the design part of the digital equation. 

That's what civic designer Dana Chisnell said Feb. 24 during a keynote at the Arlington Economic Development and ACT-IAC's GoodGovUx event in Arlington, Virginia.

Chisnell, a consultant for the U.S. Digital Service, said she feels like a time traveler when she goes to work for the federal government. And it’s not the good kind of technological time traveling.

“I step through the door at our county office, or city hall, or at Jackson Place, and the light changes,” Chisnell said. “It's like going from Oz to Kansas, instead of the other way around.”

Thinking about design in the federal government, overall, is at least a decade behind the private sector, she said. 

Too often, federal IT reformers focus on simply updating technology underpinning federal systems. Even President Barack Obama is guilty of this type of thinking, she said. He “has sold the digital service as delivering smarter IT . . . I wish he would stop doing that,” Chisnell said.

Although Chisnell said she has seen some disappointingly old technology during her fieldwork — including one system built in the 1970s — merely updating technology won’t prevent federal tech failings such as

Instead, the antidote to the time warp is design.

“When I enter these places, I feel like I have arrived from the future,” Chisnell said. “And in the future, design is a beacon… A beacon that pulls government to the here and now.”

In the constructs of government technology, design is a broad term, which may be why there’s so much confusion surrounding it.

The concept refers to everything, from start to finish, involved in the creation of content made for government interactions with the public. So, design could mean the laws governing projects, the specific configuration of projects themselves and even users' individual experience with the projects.

Designers have the power to take federal IT out of 2005, Chisnell said. “There’s this amazing opportune moment that’s happening right now, and we're amazingly fortunate to be designers in this moment, because government is ready," she said.

In fact, the government itself is just one long design project, according to Chisnell. And if the government is a giant, nationwide design project, it's staffed with hundreds of thousands of designers -- even if they don't know it yet.

To help the audience understand what it means to be a designer in government, Chisnell cited a state government employee who culled through data generated by geographic information systems to help redraw district lines over the last two decades and who recently stepped in to help design and run usability tests on for a website relaunch.

“She is a designer,” Chisnell said. 

(Image via  /