BY KEVIN FRAZIER
When it comes to politics, April 2020 may be just as important as November 2020. Why? 1 April 2020 is enumeration day for the 2020 Census, a monumental task the federal government undertakes every ten years to count each and every resident—but this time, part of that count will occur for the first time over the internet.
With this change comes some concerns. The federal government can ill afford another botched rollout of a digital program after the infamous crash of the enrollment portal for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As trust in government wanes and the need for digital services grows, the stakes could not be higher to make sure the Census demonstrates the federal government’s digital competence.
Widespread trust in the American government has declined since 1964, and failed digital initiatives have only increased distrust in governance. Elections, economic growth, and new procedures have not alleviated the sources of the public’s unease with the federal government, and a vicious cycle has set in: when the government fails in some way, skepticism grows, participation drops, and the health of the civil sphere declines. This fall in participation then increases the odds of the government failing on the next iteration of a policy or program.
This cycle of distrust may leave the United States woefully behind other nations in using technology to improve services, enhance equity, and incite economic growth. The United States must take steps to ensure that the 2020 Census and other digital initiatives can reverse this cycle and restore faith in government competency.
Why Recent Tech Advances Have Failed to Restore Trust: Overpromising and Under-Testing
A slide in the public’s trust in government has motivated legislators and advocates of good governance to implement new procedures, facilitated by new technology, to win back citizens who are convinced that government simply cannot do the right thing.
However, modern technological advances have not fulfilled their potential to stem distrust in governance. This failure is exemplified by lackluster results from high-profile projects such as C-SPAN, the ACA rollout, and the increasingly likely failure of a digital 2020 Census. These disappointments are the result of poor government implementation rather than a failure of the technology itself. Absent improved implementation, the American government may lose the authority to innovate, especially when the pursuit of dramatic achievements produces more rhetoric than results.
C-SPAN: Identifying a Solution, Not Sources
Facing increasing pressure to meet public expectation for government transparency, federal leaders installed C-SPAN to much fanfare in 1979. But officials and the public alike did not pay sufficient attention to the unique challenges presented by the introduction of technology to governance. Rather than perform a series of pilots to assess how cameras may alter discourse in legislative chambers and committees, C-SPAN was introduced to the entire House of Representatives, in one fell swoop. By 1986, C-SPAN had two channels and included coverage of the Senate.
Yet when asked about the transition to C-SPAN, Congressman Don Young (R-AK) claimed addition of the technology might be “. . . the worst thing that happened to the Congress.” Historians and archivists tend to disagree with Representative Young, but he is far from the only skeptic of openness as a panacea for a lack of confidence and trust. If Representative Young’s hypothesis is to be believed, then it is likely that C-SPAN accentuated openness at the cost of several other attributes of trust, such as reliability, integrity, and fairness.
Just how this openness altered the other trust metrics could have been assessed if the government had implemented the technology in an iterative process. Instead, the system was adopted all at once and is now entrenched and unlikely ever to change. In retrospect, the creators and proponents of C-SPAN should have weighed the other metrics of trust in governance before the adoption of the technology. This simple practice may have identified more pressing sources of a lack of confidence.
Affordable Care Act Marketplace: Applying Tech to the Right Problem, but in the Wrong Way
Several decades later, the federal government relied on the same haphazard strategy for policy implementation to roll out the ACA online enrollment portal, despite the technological nature of the service. Unsurprisingly, this strategy again resulted in a failure according to several metrics of trust—Americans found the marketplace unreliable and only marginally responsive to their needs.
Reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the New York Times illustrate the severity of these shortcomings. The GAO summarized: “The cost of a glitchy computerized sign-up system for consumers ballooned from $56 million to more than $209 million from September 2011 to February 2014.” Even users who made it through the difficult sign-up process found it lacking. In 2016, the Times reported: “17 percent of Americans eligible for an Affordable Care Act plan may have only one insurer to choose next year.”
This failure could have been avoided. In 2012, more than a year before the portal’s failure, the General Services Administration (GSA) shared guidelines for agencies intent on delivering digital services. These guidelines contained the Lean Startup approach, which ushers government agencies through a simple cycle:
- Develop a minimal viable product (MVP)
- Test the MVP with a limited audience
- Measure its effectiveness
- Learn from the product’s successes and failures
A comparable project in the private sector would be more likely to have followed these steps: start small then scale an appropriate model quickly. In the case of the ACA marketplace, designers and policy makers did the opposite. At great cost, the Lean Startup approach was not used by ACA marketplace developers. Private-sector actors, and some innovators in the public sector, contend that an iterative process is not only less expensive, it is also more impactful.
2020 Census: Tech as a Threat Instead of a Tool
The spring of 2020 marks the first time the Census will include a digital self-response mechanism via the internet. US residents will have the ability to complete the form online, over the phone, or on paper. The adoption of a digital option is the result of pressure on the Census to cut costs rather than a move to make participation drastically easier. Banking on a high rate of digital self-response, the Census Bureau diminished its workforce and removed several regional offices. The Bureau also reduced the caliber and frequency of its tests. This lack of testing and decrease in staffing capacity indicates that the GSA’s guidance on the Lean Startup approach failed to reach the Census Bureau.
Beyond a poor design plan, another factor has increased the likelihood that the 2020 enumeration will further undermine public trust in government. Though the Census Bureau and census in general receive high marks from the public, the perception of widespread corruptibility in this presidential administration has altered how communities already cautious of sharing information with the government feel about participating in the 2020 enumeration. The Brookings Institution points out that this is not the first time partisan activities have impacted the Census. In 2000, then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich tried to bar funding for some Census activities because a more accurate count would “damage the GOP’s hold on some congressional districts.”
Again looking to 2020, Census officials and staffers in other agencies have sent conflicting signals about whether participation in the census will remain totally confidential. Department of Justice officials recently left open the possibility of using the USA Patriot Act to negate the confidentiality of the Census, which would reverse the Department’s interpretation of the act in 2010. To allay the concerns generated by officials outside of the Census Bureau, the acting director of the Bureau, Ron S. Jarmin, has taken to public platforms to advance the primacy of a confidential census. Still, many members of historically marginalized and prosecuted communities remain worried that the administration’s disregard for precedent may jeopardize their security.
A failed rollout of the digital questionnaire paired with misuse of collected data may result in the public growing even more skeptical of future digital government services. Just as decades of deepening distrust have lowered the ceiling for overall faith in government, a failed 2020 Census rollout may lower the overall willingness of the public to fund, participate in, and incentivize further tech-adoption by the US government.
The Feasibility of a Technologically Advanced Government
Without buy-in from the public, the United States will fall behind other governments in leveraging the benefits of tech to improve public services. Consider that national governments in nations such as the United Arab Emirates, Estonia, and China have all adopted far more advanced and comprehensive digital strategies to monitor and provide public services. In general, these advances have reduced costs and corruption while also making government more accessible to a broader range of residents. It is true that these gains do often come at a cost, especially in the case of Chinese residents who have surrendered a significant amount of personal information and liberty.
Where sufficient faith in and commitment to digital governance exists in the United States, however, the outcomes have been fairly positive. For example, public input combined with substantial official support led to the development of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). When the author of the Lean Startup approach, Eric Ries, partnered with the federal government to launch the CFPB, the result was an agency far more cost effective and efficient than comparable departments. Under Ries’s guidance, CFPB officials started by constructing a minimum viable agency—a larger version of a minimum viable product or a pilot. The CFPB initially limited its scope to updating two forms and launching a small website. In this process, they gathered 13,000 user comments. Relying on these comments, the agency iterated, learned, and adjusted. The result was an agency uniquely capable of restoring trust in government because it was uniquely competent in meeting the needs of constituents.
How to Establish Trust in Digital Government
Trust and confidence in digital governance will only come about if digital services facilitate reliability, responsiveness, better regulation, integrity, fairness, inclusive policy making, and openness. Thankfully, efficient service delivery through digital mechanisms is not theoretical. It has occurred around the United States, in Republican- and Democratic-controlled statehouses and in cash-strapped and well-endowed cities. What differentiates these successful stories from many federal efforts? Two major factors, according to experts in the field.
- Hiring for Digital Initiatives: Ries asserts that the Lean Startup approach works best when guided by staff comfortable with repeatedly failing. Presently, amid sustained drops in civil servant employment, it appears government workers have even more of an incentive to play it safe rather than risk looking incompetent by pushing forward with risky innovation. Ideally, the government would hire the burgeoning number of college grads and graduates students demonstrating the core skills of the Lean Startup approach, such as statistical analysis, computer programming, agile management practices, and multi-disciplinary thinking.
- Building a Digital Infrastructure: In addition to staffing changes, digital innovation leaders like David Binetti think that structural shifts must occur as well. The federal budget process—usually in lump sums and annual intervals—as well as the government’s tendency to pass comprehensive legislation rather than piecemeal initiatives represent two structural barriers to easing the government into the Lean Startup approach.
Addressing these factors, even in ideal scenarios, will take considerable time. The federal government is unlikely to become an expert in digital governance within the decade. But, as evidenced by the decline in trust since the 1960s, earning the public’s confidence back will similarly take a considerable amount of time. Each successful digital project has the potential to move the dial, ever so slightly, back toward a time in which the people believed government could get stuff done. Census block by census block, the 2020 enumeration marks the next chance to move that dial.
Kevin Frazier is in a concurrent-degree program pursuing a master in public policy with a focus on digital governance and education at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a juris doctor with a focus on tech law at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. A native Oregonian, he previously served as Governor Kate Brown’s executive assistant.
Edited by: Amanda Patarino
Photo by: C-SPAN, Wikimedia
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