"There is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it," said Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in history. “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”
With those words, Gorman articulated what so many are feeling right now. This week marks the end of a shameful, violent, and despairing time in our history. Four hundred thousand lives have been lost due to COVID-19 — a direct result of failures of leadership, willful mistrust of science, and the politicizing of public health tenets. Americans have lost faith in the government’s capacity to address the problems they face or even uphold their basic constitutional rights. As Nava’s COO Sha Hwang wrote, the last few years have been both unimaginable and totally predictable, both utterly shameful and painfully revealing of the fragility of our democracy.
After four years of lies, bigotry, and injustice, where do we begin to find light? What will it take to build the trust that has been so badly depleted?
In 2016, we reflected upon the importance of government being responsive to the needs of its people as fundamental to our democratic process. Four years ago feels like a lifetime away, but now more than ever we need a responsive and respectful government. We need to build it together.
Over the last ten months, I’ve met with government leaders and dedicated civil servants who are facing an unprecedented surge in need and the consequent challenges of rolling out new programs and services in response to the pandemic. We’ve seen what happens when government services aren’t simple, accessible, or effective when people need them most. Yet, despite the myriad challenges we face today, as we look ahead to 2021, I feel hopeful. I feel deep resolve. I feel that we can and must do better. We — digital services teams that work with and for government — have a unique opportunity to repair and rebuild our public institutions in ways that are responsive and humane, and that deliver real results for people. And we’re already underway.
As the world watched Kamala Harris become the first woman and person of color to be vice president, the administration’s tech team was hard at work. The new Whitehouse.gov website now includes a Spanish language section that had been removed during Trump’s tenure. The website’s contact form asks for your pronouns and the site is accessible again. The United States Digital Service even got creative with their recruitment strategy.
This past year has required monumental efforts nationwide to support a country in crisis, and has shown how the agencies that have been able to proactively build capacity for digital service and digital infrastructure delivery have been resilient to change and the unexpected. San Francisco Digital Services was able to launch and ship services quickly because they had repeatable and tested processes. Colorado’s Digital Service started in 2019 and was able to support CDPHE’s COVID-19 response and exposure notifications work. And Alaska has been able to top the charts in vaccine distribution with leadership from Tribal health groups and support from Anchorage’s tech team scraping available appointments to make it easier to find shots.
We’ve also tried to play our part. Nava’s digital infrastructure work supported smooth Open Enrollment periods for both HealthCare.gov and Medicare so millions of people could access health insurance coverage. We adapted quickly to make Veteran appeal hearings virtual, and therefore accessible, during a global pandemic. Working with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we are helping build and roll out their new Paid Family and Medical Leave legislation, and we’ve rolled up our sleeves to help California navigate a historic unemployment crisis and waves of new legislation.
Better service experiences, better program outcomes, and more adaptable government agencies are an investment in this country’s future. Nava will continue to invest our resources in work that furthers our founding mission to focus specifically on serving vulnerable populations. We will continue to build collaborative partnerships to address the needs of these communities. We will continue to do our part to rebuild the broken trust that threatens the integrity of our democracy.
Trust is easy to destroy: it takes no special skills to tear something down. Trust is much, much harder to build, it’s slow and methodical work — it takes skill, character, persistence, and bravery, qualities I see in my colleagues at Nava and across the public interest technology ecosystem.
As Gorman said, “There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
If you’re feeling ready to contribute to the difficult but rewarding work of building better systems and structures to support our democracy, consider a career in public interest technology. In addition to Nava’s open positions, United States Digital Service, 18F, Coding it Forward, and many state and local digital services teams are hiring.