Code for America, a non-profit organization with a mission to use technology to improve government services, advocates a bold idea: Suppose we use a user-centered, data-driven approach to perfect public policy.1
In software and website development, developers use a systematic approach to product development and improvement. Typically, the developer provides a beta version to a limited number of users. In an iterative process, feedback from the users enables the developer to debug and restructure the product to meet the end users’ needs and preferences better.
“Making sausage” is the term frequently used to describe the political process engaged to develop public policy and to create the associated laws necessary to implement and enforce those policies. Most public policy is generated in a backroom somewhere, where selective special interests squabble to make their voices heard. The policy is rolled out when policymakers believe they have made the best “sausage” they can make. In many cases, the result is an imperfect policy wherein actual outcomes can deviate substantially from intended ones. Imperfect policy leads to imperfect laws.
What would it look like to use a user-centered, data-driven approach to both policy and law making? A Code for America project provides a simple example. In the process of assigning students to public schools, the City of Boston decided to encourage more students to walk to school by implementing a policy, wherein ”students who applied to schools within their walk zone (1 mile for elementary school, 1.5 miles for middle school, 2 miles from high school) would be given higher priority in the school selection process.”1 An app was created for parents to use to determine which schools within these radii were available for their child. The parents were able to provide feedback, and through the comments, school department officials learned that some of the actual routes the children would have to take to get to the schools required many more miles than the policy intended. The policy was adjusted as necessary to fit reality.
This process can be used on a larger scale (think the Affordable Healthcare Act) to provide the feedback needed to fix defective law. After working with Tom Loosemore, a Code for America member, one UK policymaker came to this realization, “what I’m holding is 500 pages of untested assumptions.” 1
As more bold policymakers recognize the value of not only using technology to enhance productivity but looking beyond the technology to incorporate a data-driven approach to lawmaking, society can only benefit from better policy and better law.
- Jennifer Pahika, “Beyond Tech: Policymaking in a Digital Age,” Code for America (blog), Medium, March 30, 2017, https://medium.com/code-for-america/beyond-tech-policymaking-in-a-digital-age-2776b9a17b69