Digital Government and the Virtues of Simplicity

The face government presents to the public is far too complex. If the public sector isn't to become increasingly irrelevant, that has to change.
June 15, 2016
Bill Eggers
By William D. Eggers  |  Contributor
Executive director of Deloitte's Center for Government Insights

Any mechanic knows that simple systems are harder to break. Digital thinkers apply that ethos to everything they do. It's a core value of every successful technology company: If the user is not happy, or is in any way slowed down or frustrated by the technology, then the whole business crumbles. So they try to design simple and intuitive experiences.

A new breed of digital innovators is hell-bent on bringing this ethos into the public sector. "Our government is addicted to complexity in a way that isn't serving us well," says Jen Pahlka, the CEO of Code for America, "and the complexity itself is actually the problem."

Pahlka is a rock star in the world of digital government. Code for America, the nonprofit she founded, has helped dozens of governments build better technology solutions by embedding mid-career software developers in city and state agencies. "Coding a Better Government," a TED Talk she gave in 2012, has received more than three-quarters of a million page views. When she was recruited to the White House, her prodding and perseverance spurred the launch of the U.S. Digital Service, modeled closely after the United Kingdom's Government Digital Service (GDS).

"I suffer from a disease of enthusiasm for the GDS," says Pahlka with a laugh. "The clarity of mission and clarity of strategy they have in the U.K. make it possible to have an understanding about simplifying the user experience, in addition to simplifying the strategy."

Through Code for America and her work in the White House, Pahlka has seen up close how governmental complexity can get in the way of serving citizens, and she is determined to show public officials a better way. "If there's one thing government needs desperately, it's the ability to quickly try something, pivot when necessary, and build complex systems by starting with simple systems that work and evolve from there, not the other way around," says Pahlka.

She believes that the best digital services make complex transactions and interactions simple and elegant. Think of Uber, which has made the potentially complex process of getting from place to place without a car as simple as opening an app on your smartphone and pressing "request an Uber." Or consider the Nest thermostat: digital, programmable, self-learning and Wi-Fi enabled. Or Apple's iPhone and iPad. Their design beauty lies in their ability to make the complex very simple.

The reason these are successful, says Pahlka, is a singular focus on user needs. She contrasts this with the process of applying for food stamps in some counties in California. "It takes 50 screens to fill out the application," says Pahlka, with fire in her voice. "That's serving government needs, not user needs. It's discriminatory design." To rectify this, a team of her Code for America fellows teamed up with the city and county of San Francisco to redesign its food-stamp application to make it simpler and centered on a good online user experience.

Mike Bracken, the co-founder of the U.K's GDS, is another evangelist for simplicity. "Twenty-five years into the era of digital transformation, the internet has a 100 percent track record of success making industries simpler to users while forcing organizations to fundamentally change how they're structured," Bracken says. "These characteristics are not going away."

Bracken argues that governments will have to follow the lead of other industries, or they will become increasingly irrelevant to ordinary citizens. "We already have numerous government services so complex that only intermediaries like solicitors and accountants can use them," he explains. "In a world where everything is becoming quicker and easier, if government doesn't become quicker and easier too it will be intermediated away. Not out of existence, but to the point where it's invisible to the public, where engagement with government services will disappear."

The United Kingdom's GOV.UK, a one-stop shop for government services including license renewals, pension information, death registry and a host of other tasks, reflects this philosophy. The site replaced an insanely complex array of 750 government websites that delivered similar services and information.

One striking thing is how different GOV.UK it looks, compared to almost any other website. It looks almost like a wireframe, with a simple text and simple layout, designed to do one thing well: get citizens to the service, transaction or information they need in the fastest, most painless way possible.

But there's more at stake than clean design. The massive complexity of government is not just frustrating. It can have tragic consequences, whether it's a veteran trying to navigate his way through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' 1,000-plus websites or a caregiver trying to find the right mental-health services for a loved one. Small and simple will always succeed where bulky and overwrought fail.

This column is adapted from William D. Eggers' new book, Delivering on Digital: the Innovators and Technologies that Are Transforming Government.