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