By Aaron Snow
A version of this article originally appeared on May 9, 2022, on aaronsnow.net.
Earlier this spring came the good news that the Government of Canada, in an omnibus budget bill, has included language granting the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) and its parent department a new and important capability: Soon, a legislative amendment will enable CDS to provide its digital platform services like GC Notify, GC Articles, and GC Forms not just to other federal departments, but to provincial, territorial, indigenous, and local governments throughout Canada, fulfilling a commitment the current government made in its 2022 budget.
The United States is not far behind. There’s a bill in the Senate right now with bipartisan support which, if passed, will enable federal agencies — like GSA’s Technology Transformation Service (TTS), home of login.gov, cloud.gov, search.gov, Federalist, and other valuable services — to make their technology services available to state, local, tribal, and territorial (“SLTT”) governments. The U.S. bill bows more to the private sector than Canada’s legislation, but its intent is plainly the same: “Congress must not allow agencies at various levels of government to operate in completely independent silos, especially when Federal benefits and programs are being administered at the State, local, territorial, and Tribal levels, which, in doing so, requires far greater taxpayer resources to be spent developing and maintaining systems, programs, projects, and other services that can be better delivered and managed cooperatively between jurisdictions.”
These developments are more important than they might sound, and not just because the digital service needs of most of North America’s thousands of sub-national governments are in so many ways ill-served by the market. Sharing federal services with state, provincial, local, indigenous, territorial and tribal (“SPLITT”) governments isn’t just an exercise in cost efficiency. It’s a critical step toward creating vital working-level connections, understandings, and trust between those layers of government — the absence of which comes into sharp relief in moments of national crisis.
Highly decentralized, federated governments like the U.S. and Canada are at a fundamental disadvantage in service digitalization. Unitary governments like the UK and Singapore can make decisions in one place, and impose data standards and centrally-provided platforms and tools down to the regional and local levels. We have no such policy or practice. In a multi-layer, federated government, when a priority is national in scope (e.g., a global public health issue), but the relevant data and implementation authorities are aggressively sub-national (e.g., power devolved to the states and provinces), there are just too many stakeholders in any given question to realistically expect consistently speedy alignment. There’s no such thing as a two-pizza meeting to decide a multi-layer intergovernmental issue.
This played out predictably during the early days of the pandemic. Purely federal issues were quickly and impressively handled: in one pair of very public successes, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and the Canada Revenue Agency both made the necessary technology adjustments in just a handful of weeks to enable them both to successfully send emergency relief money to tens of millions of people to keep their national economies afloat amidst waves of lockdowns. But federal/state and federal/provincial issues did not go as swimmingly. Data and digital tool sharing across the layers was difficult at best and often infeasible. There was little if any lingua franca between the layers, and too few pre-existing working-level technologist trust relationships. States, provinces, and cities scrambled to implement their own COVID information websites, their own COVID data collection standards and mechanisms, and their own vaccine appointment sign-up systems. So great was their need that in the U.S., an entirely new non-governmental organization, U.S. Digital Response, emerged to arrange for hundreds of technology-skilled volunteers to help dozens of cities, towns, and states through those issues, one by one by one.
But there is early evidence that as SPLITT governments start to use shared federal tools and services, this situation can improve.
Canada’s legislation has been roughly two years in the making. It springs from a successful pilot that started shortly after the pandemic struck in early 2020. CDS had only a few months earlier launched its GC Notify service for federal departments. It had garnered media interest but only slow-and-steady adoption. The pandemic changed that: government departments responding to COVID-19 needed a good tool, quickly and easily available to them, for sending emails and text messages, and GC Notify met that need. The team worked overtime to accommodate overnight popularity.
But that wasn’t helping CDS’s provincial and territorial counterparts, who were also racing to deliver information and tools quickly to their constituents. A week before Canada’s first wave of lockdowns, provinces started asking whether they could use GC Notify, but CDS wasn’t yet authorized to provide services outside of the federal space. Soon after, though, Treasury Board Secretary Peter Wallace signed off on a limited time, pandemic emergency authority for CDS to do just that, and the Nova Scotia Digital Service became the first provincial team to adopt GC Notify, first for their Safe Check-In service and then for other pandemic-driven needs.
It was a big success. Nova Scotia’s team said adoption was painless and fast, users were happy, and shared data indicating the thousands of dollars and person-hours saved just in the first weeks of the Safe Check-In service. And why not? To CDS, the incremental cost of having NSDS as a GC Notify user was infinitesimal; at the time, CDS estimated it would cost only $4,000 to send 30 million emails — one to every adult in Canada — and Nova Scotia was sending thousands of messages, not millions.
It’s the kind of win-win governments should want to replicate, over and over. To be sure, some policy considerations that were set aside temporarily in light of the pandemic exigency had to be addressed eventually. (Who owns and is liable for the security of provincial data that passes through a federal system? Should the federal government charge other governments for these services?) But when CDS and its departmental colleagues began to consider how to make the authority permanent, they returned to those issues and discovered they were eminently solvable.
The U.S. legislation comes from a similar understanding and need. TTS has long recognized the SLTT appetite for such help. Absent legislation or policy, open-source TTS projects like analytics.usa.gov and the U.S. Web Design System have been proactively replicated (“forked”) and re-used by cities, states, other nations, non-profits, and private companies; but those organizations each need in-house expertise to make use of the code. Supported online services — SaaS and PaaS — are the next frontier, potentially an order of magnitude more impactful for SLTTs. GSA and OMB have expended considerable effort over the last couple years to ensure that login.gov can be used, for a fee, by SLTT governments; and the first state integrations with login.gov are finally underway. The current chief executive of the GSA, Administrator Robin Carnahan, was once a cabinet official in her home state of Missouri, and that experience made her a longtime proponent of better collaboration and exchange of tools between governments. In 2016 she joined 18F and established its State and Local practice; in 2020 she and 18F colleague Waldo Jaquith (now a senior advisor to Carnahan at GSA) joined the Beeck Center at Georgetown to create what is now the Intergovernmental Software Collaborative to study and promote jurisdictions working together rather than independently and redundantly on software projects, on the theory that building collaboratively across jurisdictions both produce better outcomes for the public and saves governments time and money.
If there is any doubt whether SLTT services could be better delivered and managed cooperatively between jurisdictions, look no further than the tens of billions of federal dollars sent annually to states to implement federal programs. Core services to support those implementations, which could range from software modules to baseline user research to reference API implementations, are a common need for every implementing jurisdiction, and would very likely both save money and time and improve outcomes in any number of ways. Such core services could be provided by the federal government if the law so allowed, but until recently, it often did not. For example, in 2015, 18F looked into whether it could provide common software services like reference implementations to support state child welfare service implementations, but they and HHS found no authorization to spend money from the program’s administrative budget on such activities, even though the states were permitted to separately engage 18F on a fee-for-service basis using their block-granted funds.
But this tide may also be shifting. Legislation passed in 2021 providing $2 billion for the Department of Labor to distribute to states to modernize their unemployment insurance systems, many of which strained or fell over completely during the pandemic, appears to allow DOL to provide or arrange for centralized services to assist states in their UI modernizations. In-house service delivery experts at DOL are on it, with help from both USDS and TTS. It remains to be seen how this relatively new flexibility will play out in DOL’s work to help the states; there are lots of variables at play. But however things shake out there, to anyone with experience in multi-team product and service delivery, this legislative improvement is an important breakthrough and should be the go-to template in Congress for all future federal funding directed to SLTT governments for implementation of federal programs. When the federal government pushes such immense responsibilities to the states, and especially when large taxpayer-funded checks are attached, it should do more than impose and enforce cumbersome policy requirements on states; it should help them, too, if it can.
Whether federal digital services are developed pursuant to a particular program like UI modernization, or as part of a general agenda to improve how government delivers services to the public, it is nearly a no-brainer to make those services available to SPLITT governments. With any luck, the U.S. and Canadian governments will both pass their pending legislation, and we will see what teams like TTS and CDS can do to help improve service delivery up and down all the layers in our federated governments.
Aaron Snow is a fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University where he leads the Digital Service Network and the Intergovernmental Software Collaborative. You can find him on Twitter.