“Power To The Public” is a deeply thought provoking, delightfully implementable and definitely an indispensable read for every policy wonk and maven, keen on exploiting and harnessing the potential of Public Interest Technology (PIT for short). This is a field that has, putting it mildly, remained muted for far too long. As the authors illustrate with resounding clarity, adherence to the tenets and principles of PIT may well be the way forward in resolving some of the most seemingly intractable socio economic problems ailing the world at present. So what exactly is PIT? As Tara Dawson McGuinness and Hana Schank explain, PIT reduced to its simplest definition means, “the application of design, data, and delivery to advance the public interest and promote the public good in the digital age.” In an era where policies in general and Governmental policies in particular are characterised by a dichotomy where the policy maker is two steps (or more) removed from the end recipient of such a policy, PIT attempts to remove this dilemma by placing the user front and centre. This enables both the Government/public sector and the beneficiary to extract the most out of any benevolent scheme. Lubricating the wheels of PIT are three quintessential elements: “design informed by real human needs, the use of real-time data to guide problem solving, and a focus on delivery in order to continuously learn and improve.”
Even though concise in terms of number of pages, the book is replete with powerful illustrations demonstrating the power of PIT. Unlike the private sector where even a continuous churn of birth and death of corporations might lead to ‘repairable’ dislocations, Governments and the public sector cannot just afford to fail. Such a failure would lead to tumultuous consequences for thousands and millions of people who are dependent on the Government for their very sustenance. The authors illustrate this principle with a fascinating example. Form DHS-1171, in its original avatar represented the longest form for social assistance in the United States. DHS-1171 unfortunately, was also the primary stumbling block for almost two million people in Michigan seeking access to emergency assistance. “Anyone in Michigan in dire need of healthcare, food assistance, emergency cash, or childcare first needed to work their way through more than 1,200 questions.” Such an exasperating exercise could drive people to their wits end and many flummoxed applicants even gave up filling the form thereby sacrificing what otherwise would have constituted invaluable assistance. Michael Brennan the former CEO of the United Way of Southeastern Michigan decided to do something about the gargantuan form. With the assistance of Adam and Lana Selzer, the husband-wife duo, and founders of Civilla, a non-profit design studio dedicated to changing the way public-serving institutions function, Brennan put the principles of PIT to work. Securing an appointment with Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) director Nick Lyon; Tim Becker, chief deputy director of MDHHS; Terry Beurer, senior deputy director of the Economic Stability Administration; and Rich Baird, a top aide to Governor Rick Snyder, Brennan and his team made the administrators fill out the nightmarish form along with a whole horde of actual applicants struggling with their own forms. Amidst such a cacophonous setting, the administrators obtained a perfect flavour of the predicament which unwitting form fillers go through.
“Several of the officials had never seen the form up close. While that may be hard to imagine, this type of distance is commonplace across government. The farther up the hierarchy a person gets, the more distance they have from both the people they serve and the caseworkers who serve them.” Thus began the DHS-1171 form redesign project. With the actual people in need of benefits being placed front and centre, the form was repurposed with only the essential questions framed in collaboration with legislators. A team of legal and technology experts thus reduced the time taken for filling a most vital and crucial emergency assistance from almost a whole day to just under thirty minutes. “The focus on understanding both beneficiaries and frontline state workers grounded the team’s efforts. Hearing how the process wasn’t working for anyone helped make the case for change.”
Similarly, by placing the homeless people front and centre, Rockford was able to successfully obliterate the scourge of homelessness. In the year 2015 Rockford ended veterans’ homelessness. In 2017 they went one step further by putting an end to chronic homelessness, and are well on their way to totally ending homelessness. The Built to Zero team tasked with eliminating the blight of homelessness initiated what at that time seemed an ambitious endeavour by making a list of every single veteran in Rockford who was homeless, so they could understand the totality of Rockford’s homeless population and their needs. “But the list creation process also did something else. It changed the problem being solved from a series of disconnected inputs—number of beds filled, number of people fed, number of patients served—to a concrete and shared goal that centered on human lives. Ultimately, the list changed the focus from numbers of beds and meals and services to one single number: people who remain homeless.”
The book also discusses the perils of not understanding the basic wants of the needy and the unfortunate. When the Corona virus pandemic unleashed its fury on an unprepared United States, a commendably bipartisan promulgation resulted in a massive allocation of almost a trillion dollars in aid for the affected, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, a massive, 880-page12 economic stimulus package. However a complete absence of a grassroots level planning ensured that the benefits under CARES was to a great extent disproportionate to the needs of the targeted. Thus while behemoths such as Boeing and the Distilled Spirits Council got quite a fat stimulus package, “the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), a part of the bill aimed at helping small businesses, ran out of money twelve days after it launched, necessitating the creation of a second bill to help fill the meteor-sized holes in the first one. Numerous reports surfaced of businesses that couldn’t even remotely qualify as a small business receiving money through CARES, among them fast-food chain Shake Shack, high-end restaurant chain Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and even the Los Angeles Lakers, a $4.4 billion franchise. But for true small businesses, the help was very uneven. At the same time, many of the people suffering the most found the requirements in the bill meant that they didn’t qualify for help.”
All of these examples, argue McGuinness and Schank, are emblematic of four uncompromising essentials: First, government is an inevitable and uncompromising necessity to tide over the most crucial problems besetting the world today. Second, the stumbling block lies within the systems, incentives and structures encompassing the Government ecosystem and not the Government itself or its workers. Third, while technology definitely has an invaluable role to play in problem solving, it can never be a solution in itself. Algorithms can never displace empathy. can play a critical role, but it is never the solution alone. Fourth, the role of Government is to aid and assist without discrimination or bias. No segment of the population must be isolated or kept out from the parenthesis of prosperity and a basic acceptable quality of life.
At a time when the world is teetering helplessly while being ravaged by an insidious pandemic, the role of PIT in instituting indelible reforms cannot be stressed or emphasizes enough. Messrs. McGuinness and Schank bring their enviable experience in this domain to bear by paving the way.
“Power to the Public” – a defining read in desperate times.