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Interacting with the government can be a nightmare. Biden’s new executive order aims to change that

The order is filled with exceedingly practical steps to make life easier for millions of Americans.

Interacting with the government can be a nightmare. Biden’s new executive order aims to change that
[Photo: Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg/Getty Images, Elnur/Getty Images]

Last Monday, the White House published an executive order explicitly focused on improving the ways the federal government works for the American people. From enabling online food and formula purchases for those covered by WIC (a federal nutrition program for pregnant women, new moms, and young kids) to implementing secure online passport renewal, the order is filled with exceedingly practical steps to make life easier for millions of Americans.

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In its practicality, it has the chance to be truly transformative.

Officially named, “Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government,” this executive order targets 36 customer-experience improvements across 17 federal agencies. Critically, it establishes a process that holds agencies accountable not just for policy outcomes but also for the ways in which they serve the American public.

The idea of giving citizens a voice in making their government work is not new. President Lincoln himself would open the doors to the White House for post-breakfast meetings to better understand how to serve a fledgling nation of 31 million.

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But as the distance between the White House and the people has grown over the years, so has the space between policy makers and the American people. This executive order is the first step in what will likely be a multiyear (or even decade-long) effort to shorten that distance and regain the nation’s trust in our government.

This isn’t the first effort of its kind. From the Clinton-Gore administration’s Reinventing Government initiative to several Obama-era executive orders designed to cut red tape or build trust between the federal government and communities, administrations have attempted this before. But this executive order does include some very specific commitments and a clarifying command to the bureaucracy: Focus on customer service.

Imagine a world in which interacting with government is simple, seamless, and maybe even pleasurable. This is the world the executive order not only asks us to imagine, but also takes the critical step of defining how federal agencies will get there, especially over the next six months of planning and initial implementation. There are plenty of great ideas on where to start. One example: Currently, people with certain lifelong conditions like autism–conditions that will not change–must recertify their condition to maintain SSI eligibility. Eliminating or changing this requirement is among the early ideas being spurred by the order.

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Spurring action is actually the first step. And while the order doesn’t come with dollars attached, it does establish the need for intense improvements as an administrative priority, and it lays out a pathway for accountability.

Here are just a few ways the order could bring exciting changes to everyday experiences for many of us:

Online and On-Time Services

  • First-time users of many government systems are surprised by what the government requires in order to access benefits and services. In our work, we’ve found that many assumed that claiming Social Security retirement benefits, renewing passports, shopping for groceries with government assistance, or finding discounted medications through Medicare were already things you could do easily and fully online before the pandemic. In actuality, many of these services require partial or total in-person engagement. Even after the pandemic began, some of our nation’s most critical programs still required going to the post office to submit documentation, applying or making changes in person, or making trips to county offices to pursue loans or assistance.
  • The EO takes the extraordinary step of prioritizing the needs of the people over the needs of federal agencies’ stated purposes—in essence, allowing agencies to catch up and digitize processes that, in 2021, feel anachronistic to do in person. If you asked someone at the State Department what their most urgent issue is, it’s unlikely they’d say online passport renewal. But for most Americans, renewing their passport is the sole interaction they’ll have with that agency. The executive order recognizes this, and gives the department the space to prioritize a project that otherwise would be long shoved to the side.
  • It also smartly focuses on customer service, rather than digitization. Sometimes an answered phone call might be just what someone needs, rather than a spiffy website or app. For example, consider that the IRS agency currently has the capacity to answer only 3% of the calls it receives. In the public sector, it isn’t something an agency has the space to prioritize without a presidential mandate. It’s worth noting that when agencies don’t prioritize customer service, other actors with problematic models often swoop in to take money from the very Americans who need help. One company reportedly did just that with a pay-to-play model: selling subscriptions to essentially allow line-jumping in the IRS hold queue and potentially limiting phone access for individuals and tax preparers alike.
  • The order does emphasize the potential use of technology yet prioritizes customer needs over “shiny new things.” This matters because digitization, without a clear goal, can lead to worse service. As we wrote in Power to the People, digitizing a broken system gets you a digitized broken system. Besides, there are Americans who will continue to need to access the government offline, use cash or paper checks to make renewals, or who lack the network access or technology to use automated systems. Improving technology for those able to use it can free up resources for those who lack access to technology or need other direct assistance. This could also provide the bandwidth to tackle other service barriers like literacy, transit gaps, racism and bias in finance systems, and broadband.

Bills, Bills, Bills

One of the oft-cited frustrations of students, business owners, and unemployed workers—especially during COVID-19—was the ability to easily apply for government help and track their application status. The executive order takes this reality into account: Students who are Direct Loan borrowers will now have a single repayment portal on StudentAid.gov; farmers will be able to digitally apply for loans from the Department of Agriculture; and agencies like the Small Business Administration may be able to reduce call-center wait times for small business owners.

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Fewer Trips, Fewer Trip Wires

A common trip wire among Americans seeking disaster relief or using multiple public benefits is a very practical one: They simply have to be in too many places at once. People often have to work with multiple agencies at the same time—some of which require in-person interaction, mailing or faxing verifications, and collecting forms like birth certificates. This results in frequent trips to a government agency, post office, or clerk; travel time and transit costs; and, at times, missing work. Consider someone trying to get assistance after a natural disaster has leveled their home. Or a parent between jobs, trying to claim a tax credit and applying for unemployment benefits. The people doing all the right things are drained of time and resources for too little payoff.

And have you moved? Ever? Consider how many times you had to report that change of address and, perhaps, your incredulity that none of the systems seemed to communicate. Per the order, “Individuals who move their residences can update their addresses one time with the Federal Government and choose which other Federal or State entities they would like that information shared with.” Hallelujah, amen.

Tara Dawson McGuinness is the founder and director of the New Practice Lab at New America. Hana Schank is a senior advisor for public interest technology at New America. In 2021 the pair released Power to the Public, a book about how governments can solve public problems in the digital age by working directly with communities.

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