One good side effect of the health care web site story is that it is bringing attention to the broader and longer term problem of the costs inflicted on the less fortunate by bad government technology. The New York Times has a timely article here, focusing mainly on unemployment systems (not that this too is program that benefits multiple income levels.)
While the nation’s attention was focused on the troubled rollout of the federal health care site under the Affordable Care Act, the problems with the unemployment sites have pointed to something much broader: how a lack of funding in many states and a shortage of information technology specialists in public service jobs routinely lead to higher costs, botched systems and infuriating technical problems that fall hardest on the poor, the jobless and the neediest.
As a result, the old stereotype of applicants standing in long lines to speak to surly civil servants at government unemployment offices is quickly being replaced. Now those seeking work or government assistance are often spending countless hours in front of buggy websites, then getting a busy signal when they try to get through by phone.
I have long felt that the legal aid movement, while doing hopefully cutting edge work on using technology ourselves, has failed at the arguably just as important job of monitoring the quality and impact of the use of technology by the institutions that govern the lives of the poor. This includes, of course, government benefit websites, but also corporate websites that might bury within their algorithms price and other discrimination against the poor. (See my paper on this for the first LSC Technology Summit.)
This is complex stuff. Addressing it properly requires high level technology understanding, knowledge of the substantive rules and institutional cultures of the agencies involved, as well as traditional advocacy and intervention skills. But it is critical if we are ensure at least some fairness for all. (Note that this helps middle income people too, and playing an active role in improving these agencies operations can be used to show the value of legal aid to a broad range of constituencies.)
Here are some ways that different players might help address this need.
- LSC, with its beefed-up technology capacity, might assign some to building a network of those in programs who have the skill to monitor these issues and mount challenges — a good role for TIG and EJC sessions. This might become a TIG priority, if carefully crafted.
- Individual state Access Commissions might either engage substantively, or at least review whether their plans make sure that someone has responsibility for carrying this agenda.
- The ABA Network of Commissions might think about doing communications on this, and about starting an interest group for those on Commissions.
- IOLTA programs with discretionary grant-making ability might think about making this a value.
- Individual legal aid programs and boars should be asking how this fits into their priorities.
- Funders and national advocacy groups might be considering how capacity might be built up to provide support and the national level.
Above all, lets at least get this added to the conversation.
P.S. Steve Grumm points out this valuable op-ed, also from the Times, making the same general case.