The US Government Needs to Invest in Digital Design
Imagiune if, when the president addressed the nation in those early, frightening days of March 2020, he had announced the launch of a user-friendly digital hub for citizens to access critical government services related to Covid-19. The site and corresponding iOS and Android apps would seamlessly integrate the latest Covid data and content from multiple federal agencies, hospitals nationwide, and private sector companies. It would be accessible to all Americans—supporting 62 languages, and those with visual disabilities or limited internet access would have a phone number they could call to speak to a knowledgeable representative with no wait time. You could easily find the latest data on confirmed cases, study interactive animations of how the virus spreads, search for the hours and location of your nearest testing site, schedule a test, file for an SBA loan, and check on your loan approval status in the queue. The hub would integrate with state and local websites to keep you aware of the latest mandates from your governor and county officials. Today, you’d be able to schedule a vaccine appointment for you and your family through the site. Throughout the pandemic, you'd check the site daily, building your confidence in the government’s response efforts and its ability to protect your safety.
A site with these features is not at all out of reach technologically. And yet, the federal government has provided no such resource for the American people.
Ro Khanna represents California’s 17th Congressional District. He sits on the House Budget, Armed Services, and Oversight and Reform committees. Shaun Modi, a technologist and entrepreneur, cofounded the design and innovation group TM. He was an early design leader at Airbnb and Google. Shaun worked on lunar habitat and vehicle design for NASA.
As the vaccination effort continues across the country, reports of buggy and confusing websites needlessly slowing down the process have emerged. Rapid distribution of urgently needed medical supplies, loans for small businesses, stimulus checks, and unemployment benefits have similarly been delayed by the government’s continued use of outdated technology and confusing digital resources. Our nation’s failure to invest in federal and state information technology has severely restricted our ability to effectively respond to the Covid-19 crisis. That’s why the country needs a new federal officer in charge of the American citizen’s digital experience—a chief experience officer of the United States.
The world’s most successful technology companies have shown us just how vital the role of design is in the process of innovation. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to build a successful digital business without design and customer experience at its core. You won’t find a company road map that doesn’t have it—except, apparently, the US government’s.
The market research firm Forrester tracks customer experience and satisfaction across the private sector and the federal government. Not surprisingly, the government consistently underperforms the private sector. The average customer experience (CX) score across federal agencies was just 61.1 out of 100 in 2020. In other words, the percentage of people who thought federal services were easy to use was equivalent to the percentage of customers who enjoy the inflight experience on airplanes.
A prime example of this was the Centers for Disease Control’s website, CDC.gov/coronavirus, that required users to painstakingly click through 115 navigation links when searching for answers. This was one of several inconsistent, visually complex, and hard-to-navigate government websites that left Americans uncertain, confused, and fearful. The adverse effect of these sites’ ineffectiveness was compounded by the administration’s delayed, decentralized, and uncoordinated response to the pandemic.
Design and user experience are not policy priorities for most agencies, but they should be. Now more than ever, digital services are critical to our national infrastructure. They are essential tools for continuing our response and recovery to the economic and health crises. The internet is the primary source of information for most Americans. In March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control’s website received over a billion page views, more than 10 times the amount in the same month in 2019.
Investing in better digital infrastructure is the most efficient and cost-effective means to improve the delivery of government services to the American people. For example, the administration promised 20 million Americans would be vaccinated before the end of 2020. But so far, Operation Warp Speed has distributed about 14 million vaccine doses, of which only about 4 million were used before the new year. The White House used the full resources of the federal government to distribute the vaccines but not to administer them. The difficult work of outreach and coordinating appointments was relegated to overburdened hospitals, local public health departments, and state governments. Even the reporting of these health statistics has been behind schedule. How is it that, in the middle of a national health crisis, Amazon can track inventory in its warehouses in real time while CDC’s vaccine numbers lagged for more than a week?
Certainly, improved digital infrastructure would help speed up the vaccination campaign. That’s where the chief experience officer, or CXO, would come in. This transformational leader, reporting directly to the director of OMB, will serve as the voice and advocate of the American public. In doing so, they will ensure that customer-focused design is woven into every aspect of public service, cutting across agencies to create optimal customer journeys. The role of the CXO will ensure that touch-points with the federal government are useful, efficient, and satisfying. The CXO will liaison with state and local officials to ensure seamless integration of services and guarantee that all Americans have easy access to and receive benefits from those services. The CXO will be the voice of citizens on critical digital objectives ranging from how Americans file taxes to how vaccines are distributed. Moreover, the CXO will provide solutions to the challenge of making our online and physical experiences systems-oriented and comprehensive. Online interactions facilitate offline experiences and vice versa.
A CXO can build on the work of the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA), a new law requiring all federal agencies to modernize their websites to make them mobile-friendly, to digitize forms, and allow for electronic signatures. The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed by President Trump. The CXO could work with the federal chief information officer and lead on ensuring that all agencies comply with this law.
The 21st Century IDEA is just the beginning, and we’ll need a federal CXO to continue revamping our federal government’s digital experience. In a time when trust in our government is at its lowest, improving design to ensure that citizens have the best digital interactions—similar to experiences they have in the private sector—couldn’t be more pertinent. The good news is we don’t need to invent new technology to carry out this task. It already exists. We only need a dedicated focus on these changes and the collective will to bring the federal government into the 21st century.