What should America turn to for web advice? That's right: GOV.UK – says ex-Obama IT guru

Uncle Sam could learn a thing or two from Brits

Jennifer Pahlka

Analysis It's not the most obvious place you would expect a Silicon Valley-ite to point to as the future of the America, but Jennifer Pahlka is a big fan of the UK government's website.

Pahlka heads up Code For America, an organization helping the public sector make better use of IT. She's just finished a stint in Washington DC as deputy chief technology officer of the United States.

"The sense in Washington appears to be 'let's let Silicon Valley people teach us for a while', but what they need to think about is how we can rethink the whole approach," Pahlka told a meeting of open data advocates in Oakland City Hall, California, on Tuesday night.

Where should people look for guidance? The UK, and in particular the Government Data Service (GDS) and its head Mike Bracken. The GDS team is behind Blighty's GOV.UK website.

Last month, Bracken called for a fundamental shift in the role of government from one that gives primacy to policy processes and the civil service to one that puts users and delivery first.

"We should be having that dialogue here," explained Pahlka in Oakland. She also praised Bracken's mantra of "the strategy is delivery" and gave some insights about her own experience within the machinery of government.

"Direct change is pretty difficult," she warned. "But if you can show a different approach has a good outcome and you can do that again and again, it can become politically difficult to not have that outcome."

It's all about results

The reason that Bracken is able to have an influence on UK government policy (and he has hit a number of brick walls as we have covered in the pages of The Register) is because he brings in results, it's claimed. Critics of the GOV.UK push will point out that it's not been plain sailing for Bracken.

Speaking on the work that Code for America does – typically small projects outside official circles – she argued: "The little hacks we do to improve things are the bait. They get us in and allow us to work in the interests of the people – of the people by the people."

Pahlka's team, for example, had been able to reduce an enrollment process involving hundreds of complex questions down to a few simple ones that could be answered using a phone.

That made it much easier for people to enroll onto the CalFresh food stamps program in California. "The process was complicated, even insulting," she noted.

The CalFresh enrollment system would also send an email to an applicant if they needed to provide more information in order to stay on the program. But the message was so full of lengthy legalese that many people couldn't understand it and so were kicked off the program – only realizing that fact when they arrived at a grocery counter and were told their electronic benefit transfer debit cards didn't work.

While Code for America has been working on small projects across the United States, the UK's GDS has been going big. And with results, she noted.

She showed the audience a table showing the cost and reach of the new GOV.UK website which replaced chunks of the old Direct.gov.uk. Gov.uk costs £11.6m a year compared to £61.8m of Direct.gov, but has 6.8 million people using it each week, compared to 4.2 million previously, we're told.

However, things like the job-hunting site and driving license application system still remain under Direct.gov.uk.

She also highlighted questions on GOV.UK used to determine someone's eligibility for particular programs. They are written in plain English and ask only the most pertinent questions. By contrast, the US system contains dozens of mind-boggling questions designed to cover every eventuality.

(Pahlka tells an amusing anecdote over how she was explaining to a US official the need to reduce and simplify questions; as an example, she referred to the need for food stamp applicants to declare whether they owned a burial plot, only to be told by the person she was trying to persuade that he was the one who came up with the question.)


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