Let’s go back to the launch of HealthCare.gov.
The decade leading up to the launch — roughly the ten years following the aftermath of the dot-com crash — saw a revolution in consumer technology. Through a large and sustained investment of talent and capital, the commercial sector rolled out successions of digital products that refigured our economy and altered our society.
The iPhone launched in this time; Facebook, Twitter, and social media took root; e-commerce grew into a juggernaut; streaming services emerged. Consequently, the average person’s expectations of technology, what it could do for them, and what kinds of experiences it could deliver, grew during this period of investment and productivity. The public began to expect, for example, that they could take their phone — a supercomputer with a high-resolution display connected to a global network — from their pocket and complete a task instantly and effortlessly, and move on with their day.
This expectation is what made HealthCare.gov’s failed launch so jarring.
The site was even touted prior to its launch as providing an e-commerce-like experience, but for getting health insurance. Alas, the government simply could not deliver on that promise. It had spent that same decade, the one which had seen such progress and innovation in consumer technology, building software in ways that it had for decades prior. These ways had not kept pace with modern software engineering practices. They were not what was needed to build a high-traffic, customer-facing web application like what HealthCare.gov needed to be.
The result was a gap between consumer expectations and what government was able to deliver. The government’s lack of investment in its technology capabilities over this span of time cost them dearly at a critical moment, during the roll-out of the president’s signature domestic policy achievement, putting that entire enterprise at risk. As a consequence, the public’s faith in government weakened.
We started Ad Hoc in 2014, months after this debacle, because we felt deeply and understood intuitively that things didn’t have to be this way.
A major piece of legislation should never be imperiled because its website wouldn’t work. We should never let that happen again.
Functioning, effective government would increasingly rely on digital channels. What was needed was a rebalancing.
Government needed an infusion of private sector talent, and the expertise of those who had built modern digital services. It needed to embrace the entire concept of digital services. It didn’t need to blindly import every new shiny thing the tech sector was producing, but it needed to stay attuned to its users who are shaped by the commercial tech market.
Most importantly, government needed to align success in policy delivery with success in technology delivery; the two were increasingly inseparable. Put another way, it was time to start to close the gap between consumer expectations and government’s capabilities. We may not have said this out loud in so many words at the time, but this vision for the company, as a team that can help close the gap, has been guiding us ever since.
What does it mean to close the gap?
We need to honestly and confidently assess where the public is at in terms of their expectations for what technology can do for them, and compare it to what government is capable of delivering relative to that. Then, interrogate what it would take to meaningfully change the distance between the two.
This interrogation can be as narrow as “what devices and platforms are we supporting?” or as wide as “how can we recruit competitively against FAANG companies?” The gap analysis is not a static snapshot in time; it’s a dynamic system, because time marches on. The private sector continues to produce new and updated technologies, which have impacts on consumers that reset the line to which we must strive.
As we’re considering this, we must also look across all of government. While individual federal agencies and state and local governments may make strides and improve their digital service offerings, only when the government as a whole is consistently delivering on users’ expectations will the gap truly be closed.
Let’s acknowledge and recognize that truly closing the gap would be an enormous achievement!
It’s pretty unlikely! The commercial sector has a huge head-start and some built-in advantages, such as different tolerances for risk-taking than we would accept for public programs. It will take a tremendous amount of work to meaningfully and substantially make government digital services as good, across the board, as what we have come to expect from consumer technology.
It will also take time, many years at least, assuming we get the investment in talent and money required. It’s possible we’ll never truly get there. But that’s OK — trying to close the gap has a lot of value. It gives us an external reference, a benchmark we can periodically measure ourselves against. It’s something to shoot for. Maybe we’ll get there, maybe we won’t, but we’ll never lose sight of what it is that drives our users’ expectations. We can even use this model as a way to envision a future in which digital services built by and for the public exceed what the private sector can do. We should allow ourselves to think in those terms, to imagine that we are capable of building incredible things together.
Practically, closing the gap brings up a lot of issues that anyone and any role in the company can contribute to.
Think about what it would actually take to make government digital services as fast, delightful, effective, well-integrated, available, and impactful as the very best commercial technologies. Think about how they could be better than their commercial counterparts, in terms of prioritizing community safety and individual privacy.
Think about the implications. Everything that we do can be viewed through the lens of closing the gap.
What will it take to close the gap?
It’s important to recognize that Ad Hoc has already made an impact in just a few years, through our successes on major programs like Vets.gov/VA.gov and HealthCare.gov. We’ve helped our customers move that government line upward.
In the years to come, it will require us to maintain high standards for ourselves and on behalf of our customers and the entire public sector: updating our skills, validating our assumptions, testing new approaches and technologies, and staying relentlessly focused on solving real problems effectively.
It will take each of us continually recentering the user in all that we do, because it is ultimately in service of them that we seek to empower our customers to make better digital services. Closing the gap isn’t the only measure of success we have or should have; it’s an indicator of progress and keeps us honest. If we strive to meet that high bar set for us, we’ll be able to look back one day and be proud of what public services are capable of, and that we helped to enable that.