Women are already designing the future.
That was the message of the Murray Center for Women in Technology meeting on April 1, which featured Mollie Ruskin, a product and services designer at the United States Digital Service at the White House, who is helping to design better websites and user interfaces for the federal government.
Ruskin’s talk traced the circuitous route she had taken to her position at the White House, where she works in a user-experience-design capacity. Starting out as an activist, she developed websites as a sideline, and then realized that she felt best when making things. Design, she said, is at its core about creating objects and experiences that fit seamlessly into people’s lives.
She noted that one in four Americans will look to the government for a lifeline service, a service that helps them get by on a daily basis. The use of services is “notoriously marked by frustration,” she added. “In the 21st century, those [user] experiences are increasingly shaped by the technology behind the scenes.”
In 2013, “fighting a big old case of imposter syndrome,” Ruskin took a position at the Veteran’s Administration, trying to fix its user-experience problems. “I had no way of knowing at the time that I would be showing up at a historic moment for technology in the federal government.” A few months after she started at the VA, HealthCare.gov made its debut.
“The president’s signature policy relied on a piece of technology that had had an epically failed start.” But that was just the most visible IT failure. More than 90 percent of government IT projects are over budget and behind schedule, she said.
Government services aren’t broken because people in the government aren’t working hard to fix them, she said. On the contrary, “They want to deliver good experiences,” but they are constantly plagued by entrenched bureaucracies and a multitude of contractors.
“They are all guided by laws and regulations that act as blockers every step of the way.” Only private companies with teams of lawyers can navigate the procurement process. And the government can’t compete with private industry and startups when it comes to hiring.
However, the very public “face plant” of HealthCare.gov brought technology to the forefront at the White House, and things began to change. “Technologists now have a seat at the table,” said Ruskin. A group of technologists from Silicon Valley were recruited by the government to fix HealthCare.gov, and that paved the way for the U.S. Digital Service at the White House.
Teams are embedded within agencies across the federal government, working alongside lifelong civil servants to improve the usefulness and user experiences of the most important public-facing digital services.
Ruskin said that she now lives at the “nexus of design and impact,” a space where “we put users at the very core of everything we do. It’s a tremendous opportunity to transform the dusty bureaucracies” and provide 21st century services to the American people.
Panel on Digital Government
After Ruskin’s presentation, a panel moderated by Angela R. Garretson, director of policy and partnerships at the Office of the President of NJIT, discussed other aspects of digital government.
Lauren C. Anderson, founder and CEO of LC Anderson International Consulting, who had retired from the FBI, noted that the government holds a wealth of information that could be useful to ordinary people. She mentioned the CIA World Factbook, which has information on every country out there and which used to be classified.
In response to a question about privacy and surveillance, she said that at the FBI they were taught to look for the least intrusive means of getting the information they needed to resolve an allegation of a possible violation of the law. She said that the average number of criminal investigation wiretaps was about 3,500 a year for federal and state governments. The number of requests heard by the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court a year is not public, said Anderson, but she believes they average fewer than 3,500. The NSA acquired data is also very hard for officials to access, she said.
Dr. Soon Ae Chun, president of the Digital Government Society, noted that in many cases government is trying very hard to share data collected over the years, but it’s a huge amount of data. There are many data scientists working with governments to make sure that data is getting to citizens, including innovators in business. Citizens need easier ways to process the data, said Dr. Chun. She pointed out that this is an area where NJIT students could contribute.
Nydia Guimarães, chief performance officer for the City of Newark Office of Information Technology, noted that Newark is working hard to keep the lines of communications open between the city and its citizens, and vice versa. She spoke about a Newark app through which citizens can report potholes or similar problems.
“Once the request is made to the local government, we send the request to the department” and they take action. “At that point the communication has stopped. … I think the next step is to keep that communications open and inform the resident of how that request [has been addressed]. And also ask them to rate us!”
During the discussion, Ruskin noted that professionals get too excited about just fixing a database, and forget that people have a range of capabilities and issues in their lives. You have to remember the users and how they want to utilize the information.
She added that the United Kingdom has achieved a tremendous amount of transformation in the last few years. There is a single website called “GOV.UK” where you can register to vote, pay your taxes, renew your driver’s license and see all of your benefits on a single screen. Of course, she acknowledged, that this would never be possible in the U.S., but she said that we could come close. “Everyone who goes on the website, walks into an office or picks up a phone [should be] delivered the same level of information across all of those channels,” she stated.