Government in the digital age should show online respect for citizens and their time. They’d have more faith in the system and be more likely to vote.

Americans have neglected the machinery of government for more than a generation, which has had a corrosive effect on our democracy. When government fails to deliver on its promises, people lose faith — in our leaders, in our ability to address problems, and in our institutions. 

The Digital Service Act introduced last month by Sen. Kamala Harris would invest $65 million a year in federal, state and local digital teams to improve government systems that deliver services to consumers. The goal is to address government’s well-known shortcomings in technology. While the Harris proposal can’t do it alone, it’s a big step in the right direction and we need many more like it. 

But to see this as a technology bill misses the point. What’s at stake here is much more than technology; it’s the very foundations of our democracy.

To understand what I mean, try applying for the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). You can go into an office and fill out long paper forms, or you can try to start the process online. In many counties in California, the online application (which doesn’t work on a mobile phone despite the fact that most low-income Americans rely on mobile for Internet access) contains hundreds of questions spanning over 50 web pages.

HealthCare.gov website on Dec. 15, 2017. (Photo: Jon Elswick, AP)

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It takes the better part of an hour to get through. Several of those questions seem to assume you are a criminal. “Have you or any member of your household ever been convicted of trafficking (allowing use of or of selling EBT cards to others) SNAP benefits of $500 or more after September 22, 1996? ” How about drugs? How about guns, ammunition, or explosives? The message is clear: The government doesn’t respect your time, and doesn’t respect you.

It’s the same message that comes through when you interact with a wide range of government services: applying for benefits from the Veterans Administration, Medicaid, or countless interactions with the criminal justice system. Departments of motor vehicles are getting better, but for years their government technology systems have often failed to impress the public with their ease of use. 

Poor service leads to less trust, less voting

As painful as these services can be, they’re not the result of sadistic bureaucrats. They’re just the result of processes and cultures that put government needs, including compliance with many hundreds of rules and regulations, over what we call user needs. That means that too often, our government fails to put people first, and the price of doing that is just too high. That price is paid not just in dollars and cents, but in trust in our government.

The starkest example of these non-financial costs comes from Joe Soss, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, who has studied the connection between how low-income people experience government services and their likelihood of voting. 

He found that participating in means-tested benefits (benefits in which you must essentially prove you are poor enough to qualify) significantly reduces the chance you will vote. Soss explains why: “Because clients interpret their experiences with welfare bureaucracies as evidence of how government works more generally, beliefs about the welfare agency and client involvement become the basis for broader political orientations.” We can’t afford this downward spiral of poor service leading to decreased political participation, which in turn erodes the accountability that’s the cornerstone of democracy.

Respect people and their time

How does a technology bill help with this? With about $199 billionspent on government technology each year, the problem isn’t a lack of funding. The problem is the outdated way that government builds and buys technology like SNAP and Medicaid systems. The Harris bill would permanently fund the United States Digital Service, which does things a different way: it puts people — the users of these systems inside and outside government — first. 

And, with a little bit of funding that I wish were more, it would encourage states and municipalities to adopt the USDS model. The USDS is famous for having saved healthcare.gov by employing the new user-centered principles and practices, and it keeps on doing that with benefits for veterans, processing refugees, and helping high school graduates understand their options. The new way makes these services cost dramatically less at the same time that they convey respect for the people they serve. 

The Digital Service Act won’t cure all of government’s woes. Our old rules and regulations and, more importantly, our entrenched culture and practices, got us into the mess we’re in today. They have been decades in the making and they’ll be decades in the undoing.

But as senators start to look at this proposed legislation, I hope they’ll see what’s different about this approach, and get behind not only this bill, but a much larger agenda to make government work for the American people the way it should in a digital age. Because unless we fix government services, faith in our democracy itself is at risk. 

Jennifer Pahlka is the founder and executive director of Code for America. As the U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2013 to 2014, she designed and helped found the United States Digital Service. 

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