This is a bit of a different topic, but something so intrinsically linked to the way cities are run, that we can't ignore it.
I’ve been trying to register a new business for nearly two weeks now. The process, for those of you not familiar with it, is applying for an ACN number, which then allows you to apply for an ABN number. I’m not sure if anyone would find it beneficial to only have an ACN number, but that’s another story. The process is pretty straight forward except when you try to do it through the government’s websites, which are confusing, slow and have repetitive links that don’t work.
Anywho, after two weeks of trying to get this going, I’ve been in contact with the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) several times and they’ve decided to take my case into their hands. Their response; I’m getting a paper application.
If this is a simple business name registration, I don’t want to imagine what's it like to be on Centrelink, be on the Office of Housing or have a disability pension. My experience also reminded me of a blog post by Tim O’Reilly on what is really at stake when we talk about government interfaces. Here is an abstract:
"When Jen Pahlka asked 2011 Fellow Scott Silverman why he’d chosen to leave Apple for a year at Code for America, he said “Because I believe interfaces to government can be simple, beautiful, and easy to use.” That line has become a mantra for us (Code for America), but it has been given new urgency as our 2013 projects have taken us deeper into issues that affect the lives of our poorest citizens, like access to social services, food aid, and even finding alternatives to incarceration.
When interfaces to government are obscure and difficult, the good intentions behind government programs often fail to achieve their desired results; good government policy can be completely thwarted by bad implementation”.
"One example that we learned about through our engagement with San Francisco this year is how easy it is for someone to lose food stamp (CalFresh) benefits if they fail to respond to a confusing renewal notice in a timely way. Participants often don’t learn they haven’t re-qualified until the embarrassing moment where their CalFresh card doesn’t work at the store."
"We built a text-message reminder system (Promptly.io) to make it easy for the city to remind participants about benefit expiration. That sounds like a simple thing, but it took a lot of work — the agency hadn’t collected cell phone numbers or email addresses for its clients, there were privacy issues to be considered, and so on. But by putting themselves in the shoes of the actual consumer of government services, the team was able to build a service that really makes a difference in people’s lives."
When developing new technologies, we have to think of who are the most vulnerable. More websites don’t and won’t fix our problems. A single interface could make things a lot better, but it also has to be easy to use, and accessible from different places i.e service centres, mobiles and even on the phone.
The good news is, things are already changing in profound ways. Two Code for America Fellows are about to come and work with two state government departments to help solve problems in a more collaborative, transparent and data-driven way. We also know about the work of agencies like the UK Government Digital Service (whose Design Principles are a manifesto for the new kind of thinking that is sweeping government), and programs like the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows (loosely modeled on the Code for America Fellowship) demonstrate that the new approach to user-centered government services is taking hold at the national level as well.
Governments are changing for good. At the end is going to take us all and is going to take us forever, but then that’s the point.