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Rewiring Government

The Department of Better Technology helps governments deliver great digital services to the people who depend on them.

Why We Design for Bureaucrats First

What is it, exactly, that’s so frustrating about a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles? Is it the color of paint on the waiting room’s walls? Or their choice of pens for the written tests? Does your exasperation with the local DMV have anything to do with the place’s design or aesthetic?

I bet not. I bet your frustration doesn’t have to do with the quality of your experience at the DMV. Your chief complaint with the DMV is probably that you have to go there at all. The DMV could be as nice a five star hotel and we’d still find a reason to complain about it if we have to interrupt our day to go there. If people are compelled by law to take time away from their work and families, no amount of “designing a great customer experience” is going to keep frustration at bay.

The default assumption in the civic technology community is that people want to engage with government. This is an assumption that needs to be tested. I believe that most people want to engage with their government about as much as they want to engage with a hospital. Which is to say: we don’t want to be there, but when we have to go, we want everything to work efficiently and with a minimum of hassle.

At DOBT we build tools for bureaucrats, not for citizens. That’s why our first big product is Screendoor, which makes it easy for government to capture and process information. For most people, it’s not the voting booth or the town council meeting that defines their primary relationship with government; it’s the form. Screendoor makes that form, and all the processes behind it, a fantastic experience – but most importantly, a shorter and more manageable one. When the work of bureaucrats is streamlined, citizens benefit.

Now approaching its first birthday, Screendoor is being used in all kinds of ways, from revamping procurement practices to hiring innovation fellows to granting musicians permits to perform at their local farmers market. Screendoor completely eliminates cumbersome PDF forms and the complex and expensive computer systems that sit behind them.

The bulky, costly, and unreliable “enterprise” approach to so much government technology today is demonstrably failing its stakeholders, from the healthcare.gov debacle to the Pentagon’s pending $11 billion health care records catastrophe. Screendoor helps small towns and large federal agencies turn million dollar problems into thousand dollar problems. That’s the savings you get from bureaucrat-oriented technology built with modern tools and agile development.

If you’re thinking about new ways technology can help you engage with your constituents while saving money, a great starting place is your own office. How can bureaucrats work together towards the goal of providing a better service experience to citizens? Before focusing on your organization’s blog or social media presence, think about the online interaction that your citizens really want to have with your office: a clear, easy-to-complete form that gets their problem solved quickly.

With the right tools in the hands of bureaucrats, we believe that government can deliver great service – without the wait in line.

Clay is the chairman and co-founder of The Department of Better Technology.

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