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Administrator Carnahan gives speech to state government leaders at the Aspen Institute Financial Resilience Summit in Washington DC

February 2, 2023


Thanks Neera for being here today, but even more for your partnership on all of this important work. I know that as Staff Secretary and Senior Advisor to the President, your portfolio spans every topic that comes up anywhere in the world, so the fact that you’re here with us today tells us a lot about the importance of this work to both you and the President.

Thanks as well to the Aspen Institute and the team at OMB for convening this group and welcome all of you to GSA Headquarters. I see a lot of friends in this room…folks from state and federal government and NGOs…many of whom I’ve worked with in the trenches for years to improve the way government delivers services to people, especially in their time of need.

The bottomline is…these days people’s trust in government depends on its ability to deliver. And since so many people rely on technology in their everyday lives to deposit checks, call a ride, or even order a pair of shoes as you're walking down the street, it’s the job of those of us in government, and everyone in this room to…as I love to remind people…make the damn websites work.

Focusing on the experience of that person…that customer…who’s just lost their job or their house or experienced some other financial shock and trying to make ends meet… to make sure their interaction with government is as simple, secure, and as painless as possible will go a long way toward building that trust.

Since my days serving as Missouri Secretary of State, I’ve understood that in many ways government is basically a service delivery business. And that the best way to succeed was to provide access to easy to use digital tools. I also learned pretty quickly that if those tools are good, you not only have happier customers, but also lower costs. But if the digital tools aren’t good, or the procurement was set up wrong, or we didn’t have the tech talent to manage vendors, then costs escalated, deadlines slipped and the end result was lousy.

I’ve often told people that during that entire 8 years as SOS, there was nothing that caused me to lose more sleep than the rollout of some new technology tool. Because something always seemed to go wrong…these projects would be over budget, over time, or just didn’t work.

I’m guessing some of you have similar stories…we saw examples over and over during the pandemic where bad technology and delivery would sink good policy. From small business loans to unemployment checks, to food and housing benefits and Covid tests, all of those were delayed or misused because of out of date and hard to use technology systems.

I joined the Biden Administration to help solve these problems so that government can deliver better for the people we serve, and I know that everyone here today shares that common purpose whether we’re working in state or federal government or at NGOs or private tech companies.

The good news is, we’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way that can help governments at every level get it right and I want to talk about 3 of those things today:

  • Focusing on customers and improving their experience;
  • Sharing and reusing is better than reinventing the wheel; and 
  • Funding and procuring tech tools and services smarter is hard but critical.

So let me talk for a few minutes about each of those things and what the Biden Administration and GSA are doing to keep those 3 principles at the center of all our work.

First, improving customer experience is really the north star of all we do. President Biden signed an Executive Order during his first year in office directing all federal agencies to center their work on customers. And effective, equitable delivery is a key pillar in the President’s Management Agenda.  

Beyond saying th right things in EOs and management agendas, I’ve been more impressed with the real world results. A great example of that happened with the US Postal Service’s Covidtest.gov website. Remember that?  It was just a year ago January.

How many of y’all ordered Covid tests from there? 

A lot of work went into making that website fast, simple, secure, easy to use and able to withstand very high spikes in demand from 10s of millions of users. I remember the day the site launched, I gave my 88 year old mother the link and encouraged her to sign up. Not surprisingly she wanted me to do it for her, but I urged her to give it a try first.  And I kid you not, within 90 seconds I heard back from her saying “Wow! That was easy! What a well designed website. Are you going to make all the government websites work this well?” 

Here at GSA we’re working closely with the team at OMB focused on doing that same kind of work to improve the user experience for folks facing a financial shock. We have created what we call our Public Benefits Studio. That team collaborates with benefits program managers at the state and federal levels to develop shared technologies that reduce burdens on low income individuals and families. You’ll hear more about that in one of the afternoon workshops where our team will talk about an easy to use and easy to integrate tool that they are getting ready to pilot that would allow states to use text messaging to support easier access to benefits. 

We’re actively looking for state partners to sign onto this pilot project, so if it sounds interesting please attend the session and let us know if you’d like to learn more.

The second thing we’re focused on is a smart play for government – developing shared services and reusable tools so that every agency and every state don’t have to spend time and money reinventing the wheel on the same things. That’s why our GSA team has created easy to use, sharable tools and platforms like the US Web Design System and Login.gov.

By all accounts, the US Web Design System has been an outrageous success. It’s a FREE, open-source platform that helps developers design government websites that are accessible, mobile-friendly, and easy to use. Today this design system is used by 91 agencies covering nearly half of federal government websites and accounts for over a billion page views a month.

Another important shared service offered by GSA is designed to allow people to create a secure, single sign-on and identity verification to access government services. Today, Login.gov serves over 60 million people, from veterans accessing health benefits, to small businesses seeking disaster assistance, to farmers, travelers, and students.  It’s also being used in 3 states, including, 

  • in Arkansas to access unemployment benefits; 
  • in California to provide seniors easy access transit benefits; and 
  • in Colorado to help workers manage their paid leave and families access Universal Pre-K services.

Once again, we’re actively looking for more state partners for these tools, so I’d encourage you to talk to folks from the GSA team to learn more about how these tools can help you deliver better access and services to the public and at the same time prevent fraud and save money.

Our third focus is on being smarter about funding and procuring technology tools and services.

We all know that the speed of change when it comes to anything related to technology makes budgeting and procurement a real challenge.  Because it’s no secret that those 2 things take a long time in the government.  In fact, these days I know it's not unusual for a tech solution to be already out of date before it’s even deployed because it takes so long to make a budget request, get it passed by Congress or your legislature, scope the procurement, and get your vendor onboarded.

One of the ways we’re addressing that challenge in the federal government is through a smart new funding approach called the Technology Modernization Fund. The TMF is a $1.3 billion dollar fund designed to move at the speed of need when it comes to funding tech projects. It’s unique in a couple of ways:

  • It operates outside the normal budget cycle, 
  • technologists are the ones making the investment decisions, and
  • cybersecurity, customer experience, and shared services are the top priority. 

Already, the TMF is showing results in everything from visa certifications ( where it’s more than doubled the processing capacity of H2-A visas while saving $2 million in administrative costs at DOL)… to streamlining USDA systems so they can inspect 64 billion pounds of produce a year. My hope is that states here today are taking similar approaches with their own tech investments.

Another way we’re trying to help agencies deal with procurement challenges is by sharing best practices like our guides to De-Risking Government Technology projects – which you can find those online by searching for the 18F Derisking Guide – and by exploring other ways to make it easier for states to access the kind of expertise they need to deliver successfully.

For example, we know that better design and using plain, easy to understand language on websites and forms goes a long way toward improving the experience of customers (and also can save states a ton of money to paid call centers). But it’s not always easy to find the right talent to deliver those results. That’s why we have a GSA team exploring ways to make it easier for states to find vendors who have expertise in customer experience and human-centered design, especially with underserved and limited English communities. You can hear more about that work at another workshop this afternoon where folks from our 18F team will talk about acquisition support to help you get these services.

And again, we’d love to partner with some of you to understand how to build out this effort to best meet the needs of states.

I could go on and on about this topic, because as I said at the outset, when we talk about making websites work, to me, it’s about a lot more than that.  It’s about rebuilding trust in our government and showing that our government and our democracy can actually deliver for people we serve. 

Before I wrap up, can I ask all the TTS folks in the room to stand up and wave.

For all our state friends, please take a minute to introduce yourselves to folks from the GSA team. You’ll be hearing from some of them later today. But what we really need from you is a partnership. We’d like to better understand your challenges, to get your feedback and to use your experiences to better design policy and tech tools to help you meet your missions.

For our friends from NGOs and technology companies, we want to be your partners too…too learn from you about ground truth…what’s working and where we can should be changing policy to incentivize the best possible outcomes for the people we serve.

Our team at GSA stands ready to support all of you in this important work.  We have a super-talented, mission-driven team, we have the tools and platforms to help make that a reality, and we have the mandate from the President to deliver.