Page 50 - FCW, September/October 2021
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September/October 2021 FCW.COM
Better tech to serve all communities
The Biden administration wants to address inequities in government services. It’s time for the technology community to step up.
T he Biden administration has sig- naled that addressing inequities in government services will be criti- cal for the federal government, and recent shifts are showing these efforts to have teeth. Shalanda 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 com- prehensive report in response to the Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal
The report is groundbreaking for all
those who work on government pro- grams but especially for those build- ing digital tools that serve the public. Perhaps most relevant to those in the government technology space was the section of the report that dealt with “administrative burdens,” or the chal- lenges and frictions that 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,” the report states.
It’s hard to overstate how important these recommendations are for those in the civic technology space. Civil servants and vendors have tradition- ally approached government software with a rigid mindset that has created
administrative burdens. A confusing online application can stand in the way of someone receiving health care, food assistance or unemployment insurance.
Although big-name vendors have largely failed, civil servants in federal and state agencies and groups such as the U.S. Digital Service and 18F have spent years defining a better approach. The fact that the OMB report articulates the risk inherent in ignoring the real- ity that it’s not only taxing but actively harmful to vulnerable groups to encoun- ter long call waits or confusing websites is a huge step forward.
The importance of human-
centered software for
underserved communities
OMB outlined issues that are long- standing, yet they couldn’t be more urgent given the current moment. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and eco- nomic fallout have funneled millions of Americans to social safety net pro- grams. As more people came face to face with government services, the confusion and frustration with how to access and interact with them grew, too. As the 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 first-
hand. At Nava — where we specialize in building simple, effective and acces- sible government services — we saw an influx of clients asking for assis- tance on issues exacerbated by the pandemic. Veterans who filed appeals to change a benefit decision could no longer attend in-person hearings due to social distancing guidelines. In Cali- fornia, unemployment claims exploded as more than 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 ben- efits quickly.
We approached these issues by cen- tering the experiences of the people who had to navigate the systems. For the Department of Veterans Affairs project, our tele-hearing software helped eliminate the burdens of time, travel and COVID-19 risk for veterans who no longer had to appear in per- son, and it eased scheduling for the VA employees who process those appeals. To help California handle the rise in unemployment claims, we conducted user research to create a guide writ- ten in plain language that helps people apply for benefits. Unemployed Cali- fornians who read our human-centered guide were two to four times more successful at filing a claim than those who didn’t.
By focusing on relieving the burden- some tasks typically associated with accessing government services, our

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