Americans across the country were buzzing about a hot new website on Tuesday. The whiz kids behind it? The U.S. government.
The Biden administration had launched the sign-up website for its initiative to send four free Covid tests to every U.S. household, a day earlier than expected. The news quickly spread everywhere, from the savvy precincts of Twitter to the group texts of ordinary senior citizens.
The new site surged into the two top spots for page views on analytics.usa.gov immediately, and still occupied them Thursday morning. And people — even many who think the government should be doing far more amid the pandemic — reacted with surprise and delight at how simple and fast the sign-up is. It was a sharp reminder of the power of thoughtful design in government, and hints at how richly the public might reward an administration that made more consequential services equally simple to use.
What was so great about the launch? Compared to the experience of, say, applying for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or Paycheck Protection Program, or for that matter, what an insurance company is likely to put subscribers through to get a Covid test reimbursement, the request form was a breeze. It didn’t ask a million bureaucratic questions. The language was simple. It worked on smartphones, even older or slower ones. The website didn’t fall over under traffic that approached a million concurrent users. It wasn’t plastered with ads and deceptive requests for personal data like so many private-sector sites these days.
All of this seems basic, and yet Americans were shocked and elated by how easy it was. Many people were able to complete the request form in well under a minute, without feeling burdened or mistreated. Not much is a breeze for Americans right now, and a lot of us blame our leaders. One reason we may distrust the government is how painful it can be to interact with it (and the more we need government services, the more painful, unfortunately). Many people were outraged by how bureaucratic and difficult to navigate the Covid vaccine registration websites were last spring, especially in the early days when supply was limited and a half an hour searching might end without an appointment. This site is a glimmer of a different reality, one that suggests care and respect.
That people would have such strong positive reactions to the sign-up website wasn’t obvious — the four-test giveaway itself is meager and has frequently been criticized for inadequacy. And the site did have bugs, one notable (if the user lived in a multi-unit building and didn’t enter their address in a specific non-intuitive way, they wouldn’t be allowed to order tests if anyone else from the building had done so). But a few bugs — hopefully quickly fixed — are par for the course with website rollouts, even in Silicon Valley. The people rejoicing were thrilled that the time and energy cost was so small.
I’ve spent the past 10 years working on government technology — helping federal, state and local government agencies improve their constituents’ experience. As a firm believer in the principle that excellent design can further a good policy but can’t make up for a bad one, I was surprised that even those for whom it didn’t work weren’t all that upset. Most of the critiques stayed focused on the policy: Why didn’t the government choose to automatically send tests to everyone? What about Americans with no fixed address? Why weren’t other distribution channels being used? Why hadn’t it happened months earlier? On Twitter, Karla Monterroso made the point that we’re all able to discuss those problems partly because the website’s design wasn’t in the way. If the site had crashed or had been abusively hard to use, we’d be spending our energy railing about federal technology failures instead.
Those who remember the HealthCare.gov fiasco may be surprised that the federal government was able to execute this so quickly, or at all. But we’re a long way from 2013. Not only does the government have the U.S. Digital Service and 18F, the flagship modern tech agencies founded in 2014 to deliver better services to the public, it now has pockets of people with similar capabilities throughout the executive branch.
People who follow these things — we call ourselves civic technologists or public-interest technologists — noted how many strong tech practitioners were part of the Biden transition teams. From my view from outside, it appears the team, faced with a critical initiative and a short deadline, made a sensible choice to build a minimal front end on top of tried and tested U.S. Postal Service systems, and designed it rigorously to be as easy as possible. That’s the kind of smart decision experienced public-interest technology people make, and it’s the kind of decision that can make or break a policy implementation. People resent the burden that wrestling with webforms, call centers and PDFs places on their time; when a process respects their time and dignity, and maybe even gives them a little something nice, they notice. (Ask anyone how they feel about the “I voted” sticker they get on Election Day — that tiny, inexpensive recognition is incredibly popular.)
With President Joe Biden’s recent executive order on Customer Experience, he seems to be placing a bet on delivering more good experiences to Americans, especially online. This is much harder to do for more complicated services, especially major government programs delivered through the network of state and local agencies. But if his technology and design teams can pull it off, the response to the Covid test sign-up seems like a strong indication that the public will reward him.