October 2015

Gaining faith in the future of government: CfA Summit 2015 recap

I’m sitting in a packed conference room, about to see a talk by Todd Park, who famously led the “tech surge” that saved Healthcare.gov. Before he speaks, I notice Park standing at the side of the room, fiddling with his iPhone, face expressionless. I’m expecting a pleasant, if slightly bland, presentation.

But the moment he’s introduced, bam, he sprints up to the podium—not a leisurely politician-jog-up-the-stairs, but a full Usain-Bolt-out-of-the-starting-blocks sprint—nearly tripping over a mic cable along the way. “HELLO!!!” he shouts, smile beaming, arms waving wildly. In the span of 10 seconds, he’s already completely transformed my image of a “government tech worker.”

The scene of this surpise is the 2015 Code for America summit, which I attended last week with two of my coworkers to accept an award for our work on the crowdsourced subway alerts app MBTA Ninja. Code for America is a nonprofit at the forefront of the civic technology movement, and every year they gather the most optimistic, forward-thinking government and tech people from across the country to trade ideas. It’s a fast-growing event: five years ago the first Summit had 90 attendees; this year there were over 1000 people there.

Park launches into his story, showing the stats for the login system originally built for Healthcare.gov by big contractors: “$200 million to build it, $70 million per year to operate it, response times above 5 seconds, a 25% error rate—can you even believe it!?” Each number is emphasized with a graphic on the slide showing just how amazed you should be at this shittiness. There is chuckling in the audience, heads shaking, mouths agape.

Many talks at the conference begin like this, bemoaning the state of government software; other common examples include thousand-page-long PDFs and websites with business hours. The delivery is always calibrated for comedic effect, and the crowd reactions remind me a bit of watching Jon Stewart. Sometimes when faced with the reality of incompetent government, all we can do is laugh.

But while Stewart often leaves us to brood over our plight, Code for America has no place for cynicism. Problems are only laughed at because we know there’s a solution. Park explains that the login system was entirely reworked by a small team of independent contractors using modern agile development practices, and as he prepares to show us the new metrics post-rewrite, the audience holds its breath.

“$4 million to build. $1 million per year to operate. 30 millisecond response time. And an error rate of 0.000167%!” He reads the error rate with dramatic pauses: “zero point zero…zero…zero,” each order of magnitude hammering a nail in the coffin of the shitty old way. 50 times cheaper, 100 times faster, and 150,000 times less error-prone—the numbers are staggering. The crowd goes wild.

I leave the room feeling like I’ve just seen a Steve Jobs keynote…except that the One More Thing was a new login system for a government website. In a time when every silly startup claims to be “changing the world,”, it’s refreshing to get this hyped up over something that is, well, actually changing the world.

Park’s story isn’t an anomaly. Newly spun-up organizations both inside and outside the federal government are replicating this success with swift results (FastCo and the Atlantic have published excellent pieces about this). And of course, there’s countless examples of great technology work happening in local governments—I was particularly impressed by projects to provide easier access to food stamps in California, collect community feedback by phone in South Bend, IN, and prescribe community health resources as a supplement to medicine in Chicago.

The food stamps project also included one of the coolest ideas I saw at the Summit, which felt like a preview of how the better-designed government of the future should work:

After seeing the sheer energy pervading Park’s talk and the rest of the Summit, I find it hard not to be excited about where government technology is headed. What matters in the end isn’t the specific tech stack being used or the fact that some agencies are now on Github and Slack. What matters is that there are people who care—who are able to do more with less, who are willing to bring their private sector experience to bear in service of the public good, and who can get up in front of a crowd and get them raving about a new login system for a health insurance website. Things are changing, and faster than you might think.

The potential for this movement also extends far beyond making better websites. Just as the Healthcare.gov crisis reinforced the notion that the government can’t match the competence and efficiency of the private sector, good technology can do the exact opposite. At its best, well designed and implemented technology shows that government is in fact capable of delivering real value to us in the same way that Google and Apple do every day—as well as in important ways that those companies never could. In a country where the appropriate role of government in our lives is constantly called into question, a renewed trust in government’s ability to design and build for its citizens could weigh into that debate in a big way.