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How Designers And Developers Can Work With A President Who Doesn’t Trust Technology

The government’s digital footprint is still in its infancy. Huge product VP Dan Hou considers how to help it grow up–with or without Trump’s help.

How Designers And Developers Can Work With A President Who Doesn’t Trust Technology
[Photo: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images]

For people who work at the intersection of technology and government, Trump’s presidency is a source of deep uncertainty. After all, President Obama was the biggest champion of digital innovation to ever reside in the White House. His administration appointed the first U.S. CTO, lured Silicon Valley talent to Washington, and supported open data and government transparency. Trump, meanwhile, still refers to web technologies as “the cyber.

This is cause for concern given that the digital transformation of D.C. is still very much in its infancy, and many fundamental government services are in sore need of a redesign. Students should be able to apply for loans with a couple of clicks. Veterans deserve easy access to care. Every citizen should be able to file taxes online without a bachelor’s degree in bureaucracy. For this transformation to succeed, Trump will have to continue to build on the successes—and learn from the failures—of the past four years. And if he doesn’t? It may well fall on independent designers and developers to make what progress they can with existing open data initiatives.

A hub for innovation

Obama—the selfie-taking, SXSW-attending, self-proclaimed nerd—was the first president to understand the value of technology. He bridged the gap between Silicon Valley and Washington with the creation of the Presidential Innovation Fellows, the digital product agency 18F, and U.S. Digital Service programs. These programs have since launched a host of digital initiatives, such as College Scorecard–a service that provides extensive cost and career data to help students choose the right college for them.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Obama. Consider the botched $800 million-plus rollout of Healthcare.gov—costly in taxpayer dollars and public perception. This website launched with so many problems that only 1% of the 3.7 million people who tried to register during the first week succeeded. As I heard U.S. CTO Megan Smith say during a recent event hosted at Huge’s D.C. office (where I work as head of product), the debacle of “[Healthcare.gov] was a wake-up call to realize that we weren’t doing things in the modern way.”

One of the underlying problems that led to the fiasco is the antiquated process that dictates how the government buys custom software. Since then, federal procurement has made some promising improvements. The Department of Homeland recently invited Huge, along with 200 other vendors, to participate in a hackathon. We were given a user problem to solve and access to a handful of APIs, and our eventual award was based on the quality of the designs, code, and documentation we produced after a four-hour period. This approach not only saved us weeks of effort to write a lengthy formal proposal, but it also better gauged our capabilities as a partner compared with the old procurement process, which hamstrings the government’s ability to innovate at scale.

Obama’s legacy as a digital innovator can be felt in other, subtler ways: He created a tech-friendly culture that convinced technologists to take a break from high-paying jobs at companies like Facebook and Google. “It was very easy to recruit people for these rotating positions,” said Denise Turner Roth, the administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration, at the Huge event. “If they really want to serve, and they’re a technology expert, they can take that moment out of their career, step into government service, and find themselves in a job that will immediately use their talents.” This created a circle of innovation: Smart people made smart products that inspired more smart people to serve the government. That, in turn, redounded to the benefit of the American people.

The challenges looking forward

Will Trump create that same culture? Probably not. His relationship to technology is paradoxical at best–he’s an avid user of social media and yet he clearly distrusts computers. And while he’s shown a desire to work with advisors with real tech expertise, he will not be able to attract technologists as effectively as the previous administration given the sharp divide between his politics and theirs.

Trying to predict Trump’s actions is an exercise in futility, but whomever he entrusts to drive digital innovation within the government will no doubt be fiscally conservative. Reducing federal spending is one of the cornerstones of the Republican agenda. Which could impact government innovation in one of two ways: The Trump administration may see—as most of us in tech do—that digital innovation is the key to unlocking efficiencies. For example, moving aging government infrastructure to the cloud would eliminate expensive maintenance contracts and lower costs on future development. Then again, the new administration could easily decide programs like 18F as an unnecessary cost center.

One danger is if cost becomes the only metric: We could easily slide back to a world where delivering the bare minimum is sufficient. Huge has been working over the past few years to help government agencies instead embrace a user-centric approach to designing their digital services, and many of our clients now understand that the value of a product or service isn’t simply what you enable your customers to do, but how smooth and easy the experience is. This is a lesson Obama learned the hard way, through Healthcare.gov. We’ll need to find metrics beyond cost that capture the value of great user experience if we’re to help the Trump administration avoid the same mistake.

The nonpartisan promise of data

Civic innovation doesn’t necessarily have to be driven from within the government. One of Obama’s top priorities was making an unprecedented amount of government data available to the public. Regardless of the direction the Trump administration takes, there are incredible opportunities for entrepreneurial designers and developers to build innovative new experiences on top of this data. Trulia uses government data to provide insights into neighborhoods you’re looking to live in. The Red Cross built an app on top of federal weather data to help people during hurricanes. With the recent advances in machine learning, I expect both businesses and nonprofits will harness the data in even more sophisticated ways.

Ultimately, even in a time of intense polarization, technology is something that both parties should be able to support, especially when it reduces costs and improves efficiency. And the private sector can build on the technology legacy of the outgoing administration–with or without Trump’s help. Though Obama is leaving office, there’s still reason to hope.

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