While our political airwaves keep getting cluttered with endless talking points about spending vs. providing government services, I can’t help but feel like it’s a giant facade covering up a very real deficiency of our government–one that has a very possible, and very simple solution.
Our government’s not very agile.
Pretty much all of the US government operates in a way based on paper records (I know more things are starting to be stored electronically, but they’re poorly integrated silos of information and there’s still far too much paper). It’s crippled our government. Look at us. It’s 2010, and for me to register to vote, it requires that I fill out a piece of paper. Whenever I start at a new job, I get blank, complicated paper forms. When I fill out these forms, nothing validates them (I could tell them I earn pumpkin dollars per year and I can still easily submit the form and as a result waste someone’s time). When I want to do my taxes, I need to hire an accountant to do them for me because the process is so complicated and error-prone. Paying the IRS to try to audit these and catch frauds is error prone as well (note: I’m not criticizing our model for tax payment, I’m criticizing the way we have to process and report earnings). When I relocate, there doesn’t exist a good, standard way for me to just switch my address and re-register with everything; it is a laborious process filled with a ton of paperwork (not to mention telling everybody you do business with that your address has changed). I have to drive to a polling place to cast my vote on a ballot (many of which are paper still). If I ever need to do something administrative, it usually involves a trip to a court house (never open convenient hours, and closed on way too many holidays) or other government administrative building, and it involves plenty of waiting in lines and talking to unfriendly people who are paid by your tax dollars.
If there do exist government services that have finally moved online, have you ever used them? It’s an incredible pain in the ass! The web site usually looks like something straight from the early 90s when the web was in its infancy. Forms often take forever to fill out, are clunky because they’re using really freaking old technologies, and the recommendation that you use Internet Explorer or Netscape as your browser isn’t very reassuring either. Endless bureaucracy in our government has sprung up businesses dedicated to doing that work for you. If that isn’t a sign that we need to change things, I don’t know what is.
It’s tax season, and you need to do report on your earnings and settle up with Uncle Sam. You log into the IRS’s web site, sign in, and start the process. There isn’t much information for you to enter in; all the information that would usually be in a W-2 sent to you is already there. You simply need to look through it and verify that it’s true. Information on all of your recent tax-deductible spending and contributions is already in the system because it was reported by the respective parties that you contributed that money to. You answer some lingering questions about other things that could have an impact on what you owe, submit your tax forms online, and in a couple of seconds, your tax refund (or amount you owe is calculated) and you can enter in your bank account number and get your refund or pay taxes owed instantly. The entire process takes about 10 minutes.
Or even, imagine this:
It’s election season, and you want to do some quick research on some incumbent Congress representatives. Going to that representative’s web page, you can view all of that person’s activity in Congress, including what bills they voted on, any committees they’re a part of, and you can read the representative’s feedback on bills voted on so you know why the rep voted for or against any particular bill. You can also look at upcoming bills the representative will be voting on, and you see one that is particularly important to you. You click a button next to that bill to send the representative a brief messages explaining your stance on the bill and asking what the representative plans to vote on the bill. Later, the rep responds to your message with a brief message answering your questions.
Or, perhaps this:
Pulling into your parking lot, you notice that a new pothole has formed in the winter weather. You snap a picture of it on your iPhone, then hop onto your city’s web site to report that maintenance needs to be done. You send them the picture, which also conveniently contains a geotag so they know exactly where the pothole is. Easy!
I’ll be the first to tell you that an undertaking that would enable the above scenarios to be a reality is nontrivial. It would be a pretty painful transition that would take several years of planning and development before we could go live with this sort of thing. The upfront investment isn’t cheap, but in the long run we really can’t afford not to do something like this, and once it’s live it would likely pay for itself in just a few years. With a system like this, spending $10 million on a government program to provide a service will mean that we’ll get much more benefit out of it, without excessive waiting and without excessive administrative costs.
This would have the potential to truly ring in a new era of transparency. Sure, the government currently discloses proposed bills for people to read, but it’s usually made available as an afterthought. If our elected officials are drafting future laws and generally documenting the everyday work they’re doing online in the first place, that will provide civilians with first class knowledge of what their government is doing. This has the ability to enable us to made better decisions about who to elect and what issues truly are, without the huge need to have talking points spoon fed to us by the media (much of which is alarmingly controlled by large corporations that have no business running the media).
Making everything electronic based has the potential to really improve satisfaction in the government in a big way. Private companies have been rolling out web-based functionality for years, and customers have been loving it, and the companies that rolled it out have found that it saves them a lot of money too (stamps aren’t getting any cheaper!). We live in a culture that demands instant gratification, but the truth is that for most things, there just isn’t any reason we shouldn’t have instant gratification for a lot of things (like filling out taxes). Moving government records and forms to a centralized electronic system also eliminates the need for people to have to enter the same information twice, which reduces frustration and reduces likelihood of errors filling out forms. And there’s more confidence in filling things out electronically. You don’t worry that a form you sent off is going to get lost in the mail or is going to take weeks to process; once you fill out the form, it’s immediately submitted and in the system.
Best of all, this is something that’s politically possible. Doing this would make the government run quicker, more cheaply and efficiently, which Republicans and Libertarians are going to love. It doesn’t require us to cut existing services and largely improves our existing services, which Democrats will be fond of. The Greens will love it because it will save millions of tons of paper each year. The only people who are going to hate this are the people whose jobs exist as a result of the existing complexity and bureaucracy of our government, which is admittedly a lot of people (tax accountants, clerks who you currently visit at courthouses and the DMV and such to do things now, businesses set up to help people with government paperwork, etc.). However, the economy stands to benefit from the huge amount of work involved in the transition from our current paper government to an all-digital one. And if Republican economics are to be believed, the reduced tax burden on everyone would allow more economic growth to naturally happen (or we could use the money to start paying down that national debt).