Where’s the beta?

Twitter wasn’t built in a day. The same can be said of Foursquare, Facebook or scores of other .com success stories. The inherent culture of most tech companies is built around the notion that fast, constant experimentation and iterative refinement makes for a good product. It is rather ironic then, given the way amendments rapidly changed our framing documents, that today government shuns the fast, iterative approach of Silicon Valley.

After the messy and often ugly process of creating legislation is completed, our government typically goes for the big reveal, the showy launch. This isn’t only a legislative issue, it’s often a policy, or cultural issue. To minimize risk, it is considered preferable to shy away from showing your cards until the thing you’ve built is finished. The thing is, like Facebook or Twitter, the work of government never has a finite end to it.

The rollout of Healthcare.gov has shown that government does a diservice when it hides the development process and pushes for the big launch at all costs. Notable exception — NASA does big launches rather well. Imagine if instead of a massive rollout, followed by the application of just enough duct tape and servers until the problems on the surface are patched just out of view, failure had actually been planned for, and even embraced as part of of the design, UX, and development process. In short, imagine if there had been a beta.healthcare.gov?

Clay Johnson has pointed out the thorny issue of procurement is at the root of government technology problems. Ben Balter of Github has chimed in on the need for better transparency.

Imagine if in addition to the use of better procurement and transparency, and iterative approach for design, user experience and software engineering had been used in successive waves of beta testing? If Google can leave GMail in beta for years, shouldn’t we expect the same for something as important as our healthcare?

This beta approach has ramifications in other forms of government, not just tech. For example, what if that big, costly new DMV branch down the road wasn’t swamped with people on day one, then promptly declared an instant failure, but instead was beta tested in the same way we build software? If nothing else, it would avoid the need for quick fixes and embarrassing press conferences.

What if the rollout of new services was talked about in the open in much the same way gov.uk does every week? Simply having an open and honest blog, talking about the buildout of healthcare.gov would have done more than any PR campaign to fix a bad first impression. The Department of Health and Human Services has made a good start in this direction by finally talking about its failures at launch with a good dose of humility. That said, much more could be gained from far larger cultural, policy and legislative changes needed to make sure this does not happen again.

Design, user experience and usability testing have a tremendous roll to play in government. Iterative experimentation combined with a gradual rollout and we could have had an entirely different story to tell than this one. Next time, let’s pressure our leaders to give us the beta.

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