It's time for government tech to address inequities in service delivery

Civil servants and vendors have traditionally approached government software with a mindset that has created administrative burdens – a confusing online application can stand in the way of someone getting healthcare, food assistance and unemployment insurance.

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The Biden administration has signaled that addressing inequities in government services will be critical for the federal government, and recent shifts are showing these efforts to have teeth. Shalanda D. Young, Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget, recently published the Study to Identify Methods to Assess Equity: Report to the President, a comprehensive report in response to an executive order to advance racial equity and support for underserved communities. The report is groundbreaking for all those who work on government programs, but especially for those building digital tools that serve the public.

Perhaps most relevant to those in the government tech space was a section of the report that dealt with "administrative burdens," or the challenges and frictions that everyday people face while trying to access or interact with public services. "Burdens that seem minor when designing and implementing a program can have substantial negative effects for individuals already facing scarcity," states the report.

It's hard to overstate how important these recommendations are for those in the civic tech space. Civil servants and vendors have traditionally approached government software with a more rigid mindset that can and has created administrative burdens – a confusing online application can stand in the way of someone getting healthcare, food assistance, and unemployment insurance.

While big name vendors have largely failed, civil servants within federal and state agencies and groups like the United States Digital Service and 18F have spent years defining a better approach. For this report to articulate the risk inherent to ignoring this, confirming that it's not only taxing but actively harmful to vulnerable groups to encounter long call waits or confusing websites, is a huge step forward.

Never has human-centered software for underserved communities been more important

The OMB outlined issues that are long standing. Yet they couldn't be more urgent given the current moment. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and economic fallout has funneled millions of Americans to social safety net programs. As more people came face to face with government services, so too did their confusion and frustration with how to access and interact with them. As the Director's report hopefully states, "systems change becomes feasible when a sense of urgency prevails and the status quo becomes untenable."

Those of us who work in the space of building and rebuilding software for government projects are ready for change – we've seen these issues firsthand. At Nava, where we specialize in building simple, effective and accessible government services, we saw an influx of clients asking for assistance on issues exacerbated by the pandemic. Veterans who had filed appeals to change a benefit decision could no longer attend in-person hearings due to social distancing guidelines. In California, unemployment claims exploded as over 2 million people lost their jobs in April 2020 alone – the state was suddenly faced with a massive influx of people who needed to access benefits quickly.

When faced with these requests, we approached these issues by centering the experiences of the people actually navigating these systems. For the Veterans Affairs project, our tele-hearing software helped eliminate the burden of time, travel, and COVID-19 risk for veterans who no longer had to appear in person, but eased scheduling for VA staff processing these appeals. To help California handle the rise in unemployment claims, we conducted user research to create a guide written in plain language to help those apply for benefits. Unemployed Californians who read our human-centered guide were two to four times more successful at filing a claim than those who weren't.

By focusing on relieving the burdensome tasks typically needed to access government services, our software met the needs of communities deeply impacted by the fallout of the pandemic.

To ease administrative burdens, the OMB recommends centering users

When the Biden administration first directed the OMB to create this study, the office asked for input on these issues from a broad swath of stakeholders, including public, private, advocacy, non-profit, and other sectors. Nava responded with a series of recommendations stemming from our own experiences. It was thrilling to see some of our suggestions echoed in the language of the OMB's report.

In particular, the following key measures to reduce administrative burdens and achieve equity fell in line with our, and likely many others, recommendations:

  • Center people, not technology: the report outlines a potential solution for administrative burdens as "adopting principles of human-centered design." We believe building together with government partners, caseworkers, and people enrolling in these programs achieves better and more equitable outcomes.
  • Using plain language: the report recommends "all instructions and notices are written in plain language and translated into multiple languages." This is critical, as often inequities arise when the most vulnerable populations cannot navigate crucial workflows.
  • Omitting in-person requirements: the report recommends shifting from "in-person requirements to telephone or video-teleconference." This shift would transform access to some of these public services, and give back decades of labor-hours to civil servants and the public who would otherwise have to find time to travel, or churn out.
  • Reducing the burden of recertification: the report cites "frequent recertification" as a driver of burdens. These recertifications are often incredibly high leverage points, as they're points in systems that introduce program complexity, increasing chances of churning out, and are often solved by simple business process changes or flexible digital solutions.

For Nava, and the many other organizations and people who work to make government programs more accessible, this report's findings are deeply affirming. It's no secret that we've entered a period of high distrust between people and the government that serves them – it's in these everyday interactions, where a website or an application guide stands between someone and the government program designed to help them, that this trust can be slowly restored.

The current administration has indicated to us that, when it comes to the administrative burdens Americans face when interacting with the government, the biggest risk is more of the same. Agencies gearing up to submit their own equity assessments this month, and the rest of us invested in building better tech for governments, should pay close attention.

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