Governments can use technology to meet people where they are, serve people better in their real lives, and make successes visible to demonstrate the value of effective governing.
The incoming Biden-Harris administration has made restoring faith and trust in government a core part of their message to the American people. The need to address this problem is real and urgent. In the United States, trust in government has, with few exceptions, been declining for decades.
Even aside from high-profile, one-off failures like the recent SolarWinds hack, there are systemic drivers of mistrust that undermine public perception of government. Getting services is difficult and time-consuming. The way government works is often inscrutable. Governments spend stratospheric amounts of money and the payoff is sometimes difficult to see. No one thing will restore trust. However, governments can use technology to meet people where they are, serve people better in their real lives, and make successes visible to demonstrate the value of effective governing.
Long-term trends in public polling show that the closer government is to people, the more it is trusted. Local governments are trusted more than state governments, which are in turn trusted more than the federal government. “Meeting people where they are” is not just a turn of phrase, but a literal necessity.
This year, many states made emergency investments to upgrade outdated systems. Now, the Biden administration must partner with and support states by investing in a more seamless system of government technology built on a backbone of reliable, secure infrastructure that will stand the test of time and enable governments to serve their residents better.
Despite having real impact, this year’s emergency one-time upgrades are not enough. Investments in technology should enable ease of maintenance and the upgrading of systems and equipment over time. Replacing one technology with another that will face the same problems after another decade may solve short-term problems, but it will cost more in the long run. Without a workable, long-term technology plan, a short-term “patch” approach will only contribute to further erosion of public support and trust.
Rather than monolithic systems that need to be replaced all at once at great cost and disruption, we need sustained investment over time. The federal government can help achieve this with a fund that gives states a consistent, dependable source of funding for technology infrastructure maintenance and upgrades.
In many cases, government technology still operates as a patchwork of systems that might serve the needs of government agencies but can be maddening to the people those agencies serve. Some states have acknowledged this issue and begun developing Integrated Eligibility Systems to ease interactions with government, but there is more work to do.
In a moment when governments at all levels are investing in technology, the Biden administration has an opportunity to promote interoperability by making it a precondition to new funding, by providing federal government expertise to state and local governments in the form of free or discounted consulting from organizations like the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, and establishing guidelines, standards and best practices.
Make Connectivity Universal
It is time for the federal government to commit once and for all to achieving universal high-speed internet connectivity. The Biden administration should move rapidly by incentivizing building core fiber infrastructure, identifying high-need areas and providing subsidies to lower cost, and pursuing public-private partnerships that leverage existing infrastructure to reach people in need.
If people cannot reliably access their services due to problems with Internet connectivity, trust in those services will suffer, whether or not the service itself was to blame. Universal, reliable high-speed connectivity will be a key element to rebuilding trust in government by bringing it closer to the people it serves.
We are at a critical moment for government technology, sparked by the current public health crisis but long overdue. As states invest in technology, the federal government has an opportunity to promote sustainable, interoperable systems and to make sure that everyone has reliable access to those systems.
Trust is a complex issue and technology won’t solve this problem by itself. But done right it will help rebuild confidence that the government works by making it more effective and closer to the people it serves. The Biden Administration must capitalize on the current momentum and lay the groundwork for more effective and efficient government that puts the needs of its residents first as part of its effort to rebuild faith in our public institutions.
Jeremy M. Goldberg is the former deputy secretary for technology and innovation for Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the interim-chief information officer at the State of New York.