I’m writing this on the eve of what may be the fall of the government of Ukraine. I’m supposed to be working, can’t concentrate, and picked the most pro-social thing off my writing backlog, which is this.
There’s a John Adams letter to his wife which is like ‘I study politics and war so that my kids can study naval architecture and my grandkids can live in east williamsburg (former bushwick) and pretend to earn a living from art’. He repeated it in his late-in-life ADD correspondence with thomas jefferson, who was infinitely better-read and was like ‘sure pal’, but politely. It was just the two of them still alive from the glory days and he was enjoying having a pen-pal.
This article is about government competence + what governments are supposed to be competent at. So is the Adams line. It’s about generational projects. My strong principle post-everything is ‘stay in your lane’ and so I’m writing about government competence at technology, where I’m maybe not competent but at least have some kind of outdated experience to point at. That said I feel justified thinking that governments generally should maintain some expertise at politics + war. This week, year, decade, century I feel like mine has not.
But nobody asked me. So here I am writing about decadence through the lens of web technology.
If you read with a soundtrack, stan’s song from the south park movie should do nicely.
- Public records, for example
- So don’t start with websites
- You’re holding up the goddamn lunch line
Public records, for example
I filed a lawsuit once. It cost $400 to submit. I understand that this money doesn’t go to the filing system, it goes everywhere, but the only other $400 fee I’ve ever paid online was for stripe atlas, and their UX was really polished. NYS e-file has many great attributes, and the clerks are overworked but legit good, but a streamlined and transparent submission workflow isn’t part of the package.
On the backend, e-filed papers are fed into PACER, which recently won some ‘which website is more evil’ poll by the section 230 guy. PACER is the database of all court papers from most courts of sufficient size in every state. PACER is a beast, not least because they charge 10 cents per page, as if they’re printing it out.
I did some napkin math on how hard it would be to run PACER on a CDN plus a small search engine. Even though this country is 1000 years old and has about a million appellate-level proceedings per year, this is still under a billion rows. If 100k lawyers are pulling 100MB of PDFs each per day, that’s 10 terabytes of bandwidth, aka under $1000 dollars per day.
(If you work at PACER and are reading this, I’ll volunteer 3 months of my time to help you get better. Seriously. I’ll work below market for a year. I just want you to stop sucking).
My point: this is a service that government is at least trying to provide, and they’re doing it badly.
So don’t start with websites
Governments can build websites eventually, but first they should publish data with minimal access barriers. Most government web properties have some kind of dataset underneath, and many users are there to access the data, not a service. Just publish the data! Require login if you like, and bill for bandwidth so the thing is revenue-neutral at scale.
There are in theory some government websites that are ‘pure service’ and don’t have a data component. Continuing the e-file theme from above, the IRS has for a long time been talking about making a free e-file service, and for just as long tax prep software company Intuit has been lobbying to prevent that. (propublica covered this extensively in an apparently-successful campaign to drown intuit in mud).
In theory, the IRS doesn’t have a data component. Countargument: the data component is the tax information! Just publish that and let volunteers build tools on top.
I just finished some long pdf about rules automation in government. Rules automation means creating machine-readable versions of complex regulations so others can build systems on top of them. Just do that!
To the extent that the IRS isn’t just a data provider, they’re a form processor. This too can be done without the web. If, for example, the IRS accepted complete forms via email, or some other simple upload service, would anyone ever bother logging in to their website?
Forms should be standardized or platformized across all gov tech, made basically a no-code tool. Forms are something government should be insanely good at, should have down pat.
There’s an ‘administrative burden’ argument that this stuff is intentionally bad. Maybe it’s a factor, but I reject any explanation that doesn’t include incompetence. It’s not easy to make websites that more or less work but are horrible.
The night covid vaccines opened to over-30s in my state, you had to go on two different websites and refresh them until you got an appointment. The system didn’t have user logins but was instead protected with a google captcha. (G should definitely not be allowed anywhere near dot gov sites).
When I showed up at my slot in deep queens, the line went halfway around a school which took up a whole city block. It drizzled the whole time. There were people with soggy clipboards walking up and down the line asking people to reschedule for the morning. I asked one of them why it was so chaotic and they were like, ‘we have to use incompatible scheduling and inventory systems’ (presumably one or both from the state government), and it’s impossible to reconcile the two.
Lines, man (I’ve written about this before), scare the crap out of me. Every line is a bread line. One of my few points of common ground with Reagan is if you have long lines for necessities, you’re a failed state. Scheduling is a solved problem in computer science. It should be a core skill for gov. Get it right.
More recently, I tried to schedule a booster; the NY website for this was both useless (they couldn’t schedule appts at most providers), and not up-to-date on inventory.
At some point in the initial rush to vaccinate, volunteers realized the state wasn’t getting it done and they built layers on top of state and other datasets. The NY one of these was turbovax on twitter. I think Patrick Mackenzie and Zoelle Egner, among others, did one in california.
This kind of civic volunteerism can be complementary to the work of gov. This isn’t like some sick reading of weber where the monopoly on force includes the monopoly on benefits. Gov can’t do everything. And publishing great data resources supports this work.
More health examples: I tried to sign up for health insurance on the individual market when I went into solopreneur mode. It was an incredible chore just to log in.
At first I just wanted pricing and coverage information, but you can only get this by going through the enrollment flow, agreeing to a criminal background check and jail time for lying along the way. The actual plan data is hosted at the provider websites, not the dot-gov.
When I successfully signed up it was radio silence for weeks, no email receipt, and finally something in the mail.
You’re holding up the goddamn lunch line
‘Mere data’ before building the shitty frontend would be so useful, and easier to build than what you make today. Volunteers will do the rest. (Gov sponsored no-code platforms for common things gov does would be cool as well.)
My industry has gotten a pass on needing to be political about anything.
The shrinking libertarian corner of my soul wonders if government should be in the benefits business. But it is. My entire soul thinks that if we’re going to do something, it’s embarrassing to do it so much worse than par. Failure here reflects on our ability to do anything right in other domains. I think it makes people question the legitimacy of paying taxes.
I was serious about my PACER offer above. I’ll work for free for any broken gov web project that wants to get better. I know I have a tone in these posts, but I’ll be humble and ask questions first.
I’m not alone in this. My generation of tech bro (gender-neutral) has gotten political in various directions, but so far, the thing we agree on is that you (talking to you, government) suck at what comes very easily to us.
If you run a city, or a state agency, or a federal whatever, and you personally email ten people in my field with subject line ‘get in loser’, we’ll get in. We don’t want to be paid. We want you to do your job, and we want to help.