Last updated: October 3, 2018

How to Build a Better Government – Automation, Forms, Online Services

When it comes to government automation, forms and online services, there are a lot of ways we can make these processes more beautiful. But it starts with a fundamental change in our approach.


Before you learn how to build a better government, understand this: Government is beautiful. Consider its opposite: anarchy. Anarchy is NOT beautiful. It is dangerous. Life under anarchy is most assuredly consistent with Hobbes’ description in Leviathan: “nasty, brutish and short.”

But why does it sound so surprising to say “Government is Beautiful”? Perhaps because for the last several decades the debate over the size, type and scope of government has been conflated with the existential question. And, frankly, if we want to make government more beautiful, we need to separate those two streams of debate. In fact, what makes government MORE beautiful is an on-going discussion, even an argument, over what form it should take.

In this sense, we should consider government like art. There is little debate—although some —about whether art is useful, important or beautiful. Few would spend any time arguing whether the idea, concept or execution of art in general is beautiful.

Clearly, the discussion just as it should be for government – is whether particular examples or endeavors are beautiful. Is a particular painting, dance routine or musical composition beautiful? What comprises that beauty is a matter of subjective and objective measures of skill, complexity, novelty or sensory satisfaction. It is rooted in cultural norms, upbringing, personal taste and progress.

As it is with the government. The debate should be over the beauty of the execution, or outcome, not the underlying activity.

Our Government is Beautiful. Really.

At an abstract level, our own US government is quite beautiful. The three counterbalanced branches of our Federal government have roots evocative of classical art and religion – a clear expression of its development during the era of western development known as the Age of Enlightenment.

And like a well executed engineering project such as a bridge, it embodies the counterbalance of forces such as tension and compression with the political equivalents of checks and balances, advise and consent and separation of powers. Few would argue that its outward manifestations, its buildings, monuments and institutions, are not quite frequently some of the most beautiful and timeless expressions of beauty in design wherever they are.

For example, I recently visited a Depression-era post office on Canal Street in Manhattan that presented the unsuspecting visitor with a giant frieze representing speed, strength and progress. And my adopted hometown of Washington, DC, seat of our national government, is beautiful by design. Even when it is dirty, incomplete or shot from unflattering angles, such as during the opening credits to “House of Cards,” its beauty can’t help but shine through.

That doesn’t mean it cannot be much, much more beautiful. The skepticism that greets the concept of government being beautiful has more to do with the way government processes work or interact with people as customers:

  • a long, painful wait at the DMV
  • an application that is not clearly explained by its instructions
  • required support material that never seem to be fully detailed; and
  • no on­going feedback

Government processes and interactions frequently leave their non­government counterparties feeling powerless, confused or uncertain. In fact, government processes often have the same qualities. Ask a friend or relative who works in government about human resources or acquisition processes and you will get an earful of the sort you might expect from someone who went to the local business licensing office.

Why does this happen?

Based on our combined experience in public service and the private sector we have seen repeated examples of a gap between what government agencies want and what they need.

Much of it can be attributed to a procurement process that generally requires agencies to explain in exhausting detail the solution for which they are requesting private sector bids. The existing government process wants long term solutions to be predictable and written in stone. Unfortunately, reality demands that the government process be responsive to ever-changing needs.

Government has practically hard-wired a highly developed philosophy and culture of requirements development, PMO stand-up, near-religious adherence to waterfall development schedules and IT review boards.

As Clay Shirky correctly points out, “The waterfall method amounts to a pledge by all parties not to learn anything while doing the actual work”. Government enterprise has designed itself to be predictive and rigid – yet it delivers services in an environment which is uncertain and rapidly changing.

We know now that this approach kills innovation; perversely increases risk, cost and delivery timelines; and enhances an already profound dominance by a limited number of incumbent service providers. It is flawed, but maybe not in the ways you think.

Delivering what agencies want, but not what they need

First, this approach makes a very bold assumption: that the contracting agency actually knows what the solution is to the problem for which it is requesting services. Or worse, it assumes that the agency knows what the problem is for which it is specifying a solution.

Second, we saw  agencies too often build or buy systems based on the interests of the internal users, not the people who were being served. Systems were built from the inside out, not the outside in.

Third, these efforts seldom look at the outcomes being sought by the program, office or department and how the investment might contribute to improve them. Most frequently they are focused on speeding or automating an existing process.

Fourth, and oddly oftentimes most importantly to them, agencies seek to reduce the risk of failure. Perversely, by doing so, they often dramatically increase it. Agencies often confuse comfort with existing processes as being related to risk. Risk avoidance and comfort are not the same.

The existing rigid requirements-driven, process-obsessed, waterfall acquisition models are an attempt to reduce risk by diligently detailing every step or timeframe. The problem, obvious to the agile development crowd, is that this rigidity assumes an ability to anticipate every problem, mistake, flaw, integration…or weather pattern!

In short, agencies want: a specific solution that speeds an unreformed process, ignores complicated issues or outcomes, and eliminates risk through pseudo-scientific waterfall delivery models.

This is not what agencies need

What agencies need is recognition that they exist to deliver services to the people in the most efficient and effective way; delivering clear, measurable and transparent outcomes.

That starts with the people (customer, clients, etc) and the way they interact with the government and how that then triggers the service and its delivery. Systems need to be built starting with the user, and that may mean changing processes not just speeding them up.

Of course that would mean a procurement system that focuses on defining problems and outcomes and not specifying solutions in ad nauseam detail. It also means adopting agile development processes that makes the vendor a partner, not a risk to be mitigated. It means sprints, UX testing, continuous improvement, SaaS and the cloud.

Why does this happen?

These complicated, convoluted, unclear, non­transparent and decidedly NOT beautiful processes are not the product of malevolent forces. They are the outcome of complexity, inconsistent investment, necessary oversight, legislative mandate and the bureaucratic equivalent of geologic deposition of layer after layer of all of these things.

To make government more beautiful in interacting with the people it serves we need to mine through these layers to more directly connect the agents of government with those people. The technology revolution of the last decade ­- the incredible combination of ubiquitous interconnected computing and communications ­- makes this connection faster, easier and more cost effective than any other point in history. It is time to export the transformation that we have experienced in nearly every other form of transaction -­ from personal communication to retail shopping and entertainment ­- to our most vital civic institutions.

Government wants predictability, however it needs to embrace adaptability. The Federal Government has learned a great deal—let’s build on it.

The incoming Trump Administration should benefit from the lessons learned during the Obama years from such notable instances of tech implementation failure as This led the Obama Administration to provide a dose of what was  “needed” to the Federal Government. The PIF program, USDS, 18F and now the TTS are all recognition that the paradigm must shift if the American People are going to get the government they expect and deserve. The Trump Administration can leverage these investments to dramatically improve service delivery efficiency and effectiveness.

An emerging set of new companies have launched themselves into the void between expectation and the current reality. These firms, including my own, are focused on leveraging the contemporary technological disruption to transform government business processes at their most fundamental level ­- where people and government interact at the point of information transfer. Others are working to use this data to support improved decision­-making and service delivery. Still others are improving communications, program efficiency or transparency.

So, let’s stop simply bashing the government and instead recognize the fundamental truth that government is beautiful. And with the application of new tech and improved government online services it will be even more beautiful.

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