Even though technology evolves at a rapid clip, US government agencies seem trapped about a decade in the past. PJ talks to technologist Clay Johnson about why the government is so unable to adapt, and what it would look like if it could keep pace with the rest of the world.
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Clay’s book is called The Information Diet: The Case for Conscious Consumption
PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, This is Reply All, a show about the internet, I’m PJ Vogt. And this week we are talking to a man named Clay Johnson. Clay’s done a bunch of impressive things that have to do with politics and the Internet. His company built barackobama.com. He worked on the Howard Dean website which was very revolutionary for campaign politics and today we are talking to him about none of that. Today we are talking to him about his pet interest, finding and complaining about the worst government websites on the internet.
CLAY JOHNSON: My favorite website to pick on, is sam.gov, S-A-M as in Uncle Sam dot gov.
PJ: Alright, I’m loading it.
CLAY: So Sam.gov, this website I think cost about two hundred million dollars so far to make. Just check it out.
PJ: I’m looking on it. It looks like a website you would build for your local softball team in like 1993.
PJ: Clay says government sites exist on a different, worse internet than everything else. But sam.gov is the jewel of his collection. It’s particularly egregious because it’s like the government’s front door. Anybody who does contract work for the federal government is supposed to go to register here, whether they want to build a bridge or an airplane or a nuclear power plant, they have to funnel through this archaic portal. If you go to sam.gov and you try to open a new tab it will just show you whatever was in the tab you already had open.
CLAY: And you’re telling me this website costs almost a quarter billion dollars, and, can’t support two tabs at the same time! You know for contrast, early in 2013, Barack Obama came out said he was pressing for a grant for the NIH to spend a hundred million dollars mapping the human brain. It was going to be this big thing, and I was like, you just spent that on a fucking website.
PJ: Clay thinks that sam.gov is symptomatic of this much larger, slow motion national disaster. It’s like if every highway in America was actively on fire but none of us realized it. And Clay says that if you want to understand the reason that the US government has such bad software, you have to start at the beginning. You have to start with how the government hires the people who build that software. And the ironic thing is that they hire those people using that same crappy website that we’ve been talking about, sam.gov.
PJ: Okay so say that Obama decides he really wants to make a podcast and so they open up a bidding process where they’re like Gimlet’s going to bid on it, NPR’s going to bid on it, what would that look like?
CLAY: Right so they’d issue an RFP, a request for proposals. One of the requirements in the top thirty pages of this document will be that this contract can not be awarded to you unless you’re registered on sam.gov. There’s a lot of other things. You have to guarantee that you’re not a terrorist. California makes you guarantee that you don’t own any slaves.
PJ: So assuming I’m a non-slave owning, non-terrorist podcaster, then I have to go to sam.gov, and I have to register there to be eligible to submit this bid?
CLAY: Yes, so you start with sam.gov. And the first field at sam.gov is what is your DUNS number? What’s a DUNS number? A DUNS number is a proprietary number owned by a different government contractor, not the government. It’s owned by Dun and Bradstreet. Then what you do is you leave sam.gov and go to Dun and Bradstreet and apply for a DUNS number.
PJ: I wanted to try this myself to see how long it takes. One to two business days to get a DUNS number. And I was too confused by the process to go through with it.
CLAY: This is a rabbit hole you cannot escape from. This is just the first question.
PJ: So right now imagine a progress bar like you get when you’re installing software, what percentage of the progress bar towards submitting this bid are we at right now?
PJ: This isn’t just a big hassle, it’s actually a problem. Because it means that the people who are the best in the business at making better technology a lot of them are going to just decide not to go through with this process.
CLAY: So if you’re like a young start-up company, and you make websites, and you want to get your government contract, you’ve got to go here first before you can even think about starting it. You go to this website, and you basically go: I’m done. Forget it. But what happens is that this regulatory environment is so huge and requires a real skill to understand, that the people who win the contracts are the people often times who understand those regulations the best, not the people who can understand the technology the best.
PJ: There are other other inefficiencies in the bidding process, for example, because the process takes so long, years can pass between when you bid on a job and when you actually start it. Years. That would be bad for any job, but is especially bad for software. In the case of healthcare.gov, the biggest, recent government tech failure, only sixteen companies were really eligible to bid on the job. And those companies were picked in 2007, when Bush was president. Those sixteen companies were told for the next ten years, you’re gonna handle health care technology. Which is crazy, because in 2007, handling health care technology didn’t mean building something as gargantuan and unprecedented as a national healthcare marketplace. Clay says that even once a company wins one of these bids, the red tape has just begun. With healthcare.gov the work ended up being divided between many different subcontractors. In the end there was a lot of confusion about which company was actually supposed to stitch all the work together. The first testing of the complete system happened two weeks before the launch. iPhone video games get beta tested for much longer than that. This environment can make even really good companies do bad work. Sam.gov, Clay’s least favorite website, IBM made it.
CLAY: They’re great people, they’re super smart. They won Jeopardy with a robot, man. They’re pretty good.
PJ: But how did they win Jeopardy with a robot and then also build this website?
CLAY: Right. Part of it is because of the way these projects are managed from the inside. We’ve been talking about the procurement process, what it takes to get to the starting line of the marathon, but then you have to actually run the marathon, and there’s lots of regs around that too.
PJ: The marathon of regulations produces a lot of bad software. And the states have their own similar marathons. And the end result is that you end up with an entire nation afflicted with this plague of comically awful government technology.
NATHANIEL WAUGH: I was a, well in Nevada we call them field services technicians and those are just basically, I’m here to do anything whether it’s an ID, whether it’s registration, all of it.
PJ: This is Nathaniel Waugh. Until recently he worked at the DMV in Las Vegas.
NATHANIEL: You think you hate the DMV but the people who work there, they hate it even more.
PJ: He said his days started out bad, beginning before he’d even gotten in to the building.
NATHANIEL:You see you know, thirty, forty, fifty people standing in line and they’ve been standing in line since before you probably woke up that morning, so they’re already in a bad mood and I mean it just drains you mentally because then you’re like, you know like okay here we go and then it just doesn’t stop. You see those people lined up and then they just keep coming coming coming coming coming.
PJ: Nathaniel said that the computers at the DMV, these antique Windows machines gasping along on eleven year old software, they drove him crazy.
NATHANIEL: One of the biggest problems is the inability to bundle transactions together, so if you show up and you have to do your car registration you have to renew your license and you have to do something else and you want to get personalized plates, well rather than me being able to say okay well let’s just do all these three. I charge you one time, send you on your way and boom you’re done, is I have to do one at a time. You know it’d be like going to the grocery store and like okay I’m going to ring up your produce first and then I’m going to do the meat and then you pay me for that and then I’m going to do your dairy and you pay me for that and it just takes so much more time in order to get someone though because you’re basically doing someone’s transaction and then going back to the very beginning and starting all over again on something else.
PJ: That’s insane.
NATHANIEL: Yeah. Very insane.
PJ: Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I imagine different hells. One of the worst ones, is that you die, and then you’re just in a room with a video monitor. And the monitor would show you a movie. It’s every moment of your life where you sat there and you waited for a computer to load. That’s it. You just wait. I think for me that movie would last for weeks. But I feel so lucky that I’ve never had to use a DMV computer.
NATHANIEL: Part of it, because all the computers are connected with this system all throughout the state, it’s also there’s a lot of lag and sometimes I’ll be waiting for the program to finish a process and all we can do is sit there for five minutes looking at each other. What I could tell from the look in some people’s eyes is that I think to a degree some of them just think its a technician, like oh this person did something wrong and it’s like, it’s just the computer system is terrible.
PJ: Nathaniel says after ten months of fighting all of this, it finally just got to him.
PJ: And can I ask, did you quit?
NATHANIEL: I was probationarily discharged because I apparently wasn’t patient enough with some people.
PJ: Nathaniel says his time at the DMV turned him into somebody he didn’t recognize. He was a student body president who got into public service to try to make a difference. But at the DMV, he found himself cursing, beating countertops, slamming drawers. Even when he left work, the DMV was still with him. He found himself avoiding strangers.
NATHANIEL: Just the idea of someone engaging you in conversation even a stranger is like repulsive, they look like they’re going to ask you a question and it looks like it’s going to be a stupid question and I’m going to have to stand here for too long answering it and then you just walk around with a miserable look on your face and the only people who you even kind of remotely get along with are your fellow DMV employees and that’s just more of a misery loves company kind of thing than anything else but then once I left the DMV and got that out of my system then, you know people were amazing, love ’em. Can’t get enough of them.
PJ: There is a model for how all of this could work better. It’s like a magical kingdom where they decided to take organization and process and technological literacy extremely seriously, where it’s basically all they think about. And we are going to go to that place after the break.
PJ: Welcome back to the show. So we spent the first half in government internet hell, courtesy of our government internet hell tour guide Clay Johnson. Clay works in politics and I wanted to know of the people running for president who would he pick who could fix all this stuff and he wouldn’t give me an answer he just said he wanted to ask all of them one question.
CLAY: First off I’m going to give you the question that I’d really love to ask that I’d really never ask as a moderator of a debate.
PJ: Clay would like to ask the candidates about a law that I promise you you have not heard of.
CLAY: My favorite law inside of the federal government is called The Paperwork Reduction Act. What is says is that if you want to collect any information from the public then you need to ask the public whether or not it is okay for six months, you should have a public comment process of about sixth months, so whether or not it’s okay for you to ask that question.
PJ: The Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 was supposed to save time. According to the law, if the government wants you to fill out a form, it has to first send that form to an office that decides how many hours of the citizens time that form is going to waste.
CLAY: And the chief statistician of the United States which, p.s. we have the Chief Statistician, nobody knows about, has to report to Congress as to the estimated number of burdened hours over time in all of these forms. There’s actually a list of like, the 1040 form is, for the IRS, is something like 7.8 billion hours that it’s estimated to be spent, and we track the number of hours. But anyway! When the president, this president first took office, who got elected based on new media and Twitter and the Facebooks and all that stuff. He wanted to tweet something, and his staff wanted to tweet something like “hey guys, how’s everybody feeling today?” He wanted to tweet a question. And the lawyers were like “Well, I don’t think you could really tweet a question, because that would be an information collection.”
PJ: Oh my God.
CLAY: And so, if you wanted to Tweet that thing, you would need to put that Tweet out for six months asking people if it was okay for you to tweet that before you tweeted it.
PJ: According to Clay, the policies have since loosened.
CLAY: Now you can ask questions, this took like real guidance, as long as they are unstructured questions. For instance, you cannot ask someone without going through the PRA process “What is your age?” You could ask someone, “Tell us what age you think you are and why.”
PJ: Wait, I don’t understand that distinction.
CLAY: What they basically said was, it’s not ok for you to put out a survey without going through the process.
PJ: This story frankly seemed crazy to us. So we tried to confirm it. We talked to a couple people who had worked inside Obama’s social media world. They didn’t remember this specific incident, but they said that it seemed totally credible. In fact they had examples of other arcane laws that they thought thought als could have been responsible for restricting what a president could tweet. They said that there were lawyers around the White House worried about the implications of anybody using social media. When Obama got into office, Twitter was blocked by default on White House computers. Facebook too. And the sites were only opened up to those who completed an especially fussy training process. According to somebody who still works in the executive branch, every day is just one ridiculous fight after the other, fights for the right to use basic social media and collaboration technologies. Stuff that you and I take for granted. For example, one person told us that in a recent meeting they just had to show their colleagues how Google Docs works. They were fielding questions about what all the different color cursors meant, how you save a document, and as a result a lot of people who work in government have given up trying. Obama himself has said this a huge mess, this is him talking at a Wall Street Journal live event.
CLAY: The way the federal government does procurement and does IT is just generally not very efficient. In fact, there’s probably no bigger gap between the private sector and the public sector than IT.
PJ: And this more than anything is Clay Johnson’s big fear. This is the reason he spends so much time complaining government sites like a snobby film critic. He’s worried that there’s a widening chasm between the world we live in and the world our government lives in. And even though government is supposed to be deliberate and technology is supposed to be fast, he doesn’t think there’s a reason why they have to be this far apart.
PJ: Is there a country that you look at and you think, they have done a much better job of this stuff? Like I feel like Estonia or Sweden, like there’s somewhere that would have had it?
CLAY: Yeah, Estonia.
PJ: Really Estonia?
PJ: I got it in one?
CLAY: Yeah. You got it in the first guess Estonia. Estonia’s doing really interesting stuff, so they for instance started a digital identity system. So when you’re born now instead of getting a social security number, you get a public private key. That’s a method that you can use to have secure transactions with government and verify your identity with government.
PJ: Quick language advisory here: Fucking Estonia! In Estonia, you pay for your parking space with your phone. In Estonia, you vote from your home computer. In Estonia, you file your taxes online, which we get to do but in Estonia it takes about five minutes. Estonia is heaven on earth, but Clay says if you don’t want to move to Estonia there’s one more place that’s a lot closer to home, where he says that things actually do work the way that they should. A magical place.
CLAY: You know look at what Disney world has done to the line! Right now at Disney World apparently you just get a bracelet, and you can tap your way in, you get reservations for the individual rides, right? Why can’t we have that at the Department of Motor Vehicles? Why can’t we have that for any customer service experience? I bet you that the people behind the desk would be happier! And the people in front of the desk would be happier.
PJ: I went to, like very recently, I guess a couple years ago I went to Disney World with my mom and my stepdad, her husband, and I didn’t understand like why. Because it’s just us, we’re all adults, and I didn’t understand the appeal of going, and we got there and we got into the parking lot and they had this really genius system for parking. Like all of these people have to park there every day, and you know, there’s sort of an air traffic control thing, but essentially you get, gracefully guided into this spot, and everything’s taken care of and perfect. And my step dad looked at me and my mom mom and was like “You see? You see? This is it.” Just to be in a place where the system works is peacemaking.
CLAY: can you imagine if the TSA worked that way, right? And what I’m saying is that, you know, “You and I, we can build a bridge to the 21st century! Even though we’re 15 years in, we can still build that bridge!” We can get there. We can do that. We can make it so that the TSA works a little bit more like Disney World, and a little less like Dante’s Inferno.
PJ: Clay Johnson. He’s written a book it’s called the Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption. That’s this week’s show. Reply All is hosted me PJ Vogt with Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Katharine Wells and edited by Alex Blumberg and Eli Horowitz. We were engineered by the Reverend John DeLore. Production assistance from Sylvie Douglis. Matt Lieber is Estonia. Special thanks to Emily Kennedy and Paul Ford. And thanks to Susan Grossman from Vancouver for being a Gimlet member. Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find more episodes of our show at iTunes.com/replyall. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.