Why Civic Engagement Needs Modern Technology

Why Code For South Florida Builds Civic Technology
Demonstrators from Doctors for America marched in support of the Affordable Care Act outside the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2015.
Demonstrators from Doctors for America marched in support of the Affordable Care Act outside the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2015. NPR.org

Code For South Florida is an organization working in the field of Public Interest Technology, where we are constantly asking ourselves these questions: 

  • How do we influence the sociopolitical landscape when the same technology services that are supposed to help citizens ignore their core needs and suppress their voices?  
  • How do we create technology that empowers, rather than disenfranchises, individuals and communities?  
  • How do we break down the silos among core stakeholders and government agencies that are most suited to act around creating, implementing, and regulating public interest technology? 

The answers are the heart of Code For South Florida’s mission, vision, and purpose – to create systemic change by designing, developing, and deploying Civic Technology genuinely designed to serve people in South Florida.

This post will briefly explore two stories of public interest technology gone wrong that point to the cause behind Code For South Florida’s work, not only within our home of South Florida but across the entire nation.

Healthcare Access Is A Human Right

The World Health Organization considers “the highest attainable health standard” a fundamental human right of “every human being”. In 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was signed into law, promising an overhaul of the American healthcare system unlike any other seen before, based on “the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care.” The law promised to drastically reduce the number of uninsured individuals by 32 million – an ambitious but perfectly plausible number.

A core component of the sweeping healthcare overhaul was the implementation of an online marketplace for citizens and businesses to easily shop for affordable and appropriate healthcare plans. The Federal Government contracted Startup Development Seed to build the healthcare platform’s front-end with open-source technologies, and contracted the back-end to a network of software development firms.

The platform was called Healthcare.gov, and it was posed to be a victory for both the general public and technologists alike. However, when it launched on October 1st of 2013, instead of representing the apex of digital public services, Healthcare.gov immediately became the punching bag of political punditry as a half-baked, dysfunctional product. What should have been an enterprise-grade software solution at launch was impossible to navigate and access, effectively blocking individuals from attaining a basic public necessity and costing taxpayers nearly $300 million for a project that was expected to cost $93.7 million.  

Healthcare.gov remains operational to this day and stands as one of the most prevalent examples in recent memory of a Civic Technology platform with national scope gone terribly wrong. It promised to make a public necessity more accessible as a state-issued interface between citizens and healthcare providers.

Unemployment Support During Pandemics Is A Public Necessity

When COVID-19 reached Florida and businesses shutdown, many people lost their wages, leaving them without income to endure the growing crisis. With South Florida having one of the least affordable housing markets in the United States, this spelled out a financial crisis for many in an already chaotic time. Those who lost their jobs immediately turned to file for unemployment through the Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, hoping to claim the social support promised to them by the law to make up for the lost wages, and hopefully better endure the pandemic.

The Florida Connect Unemployment Website was supposed to be a tool to connect unemployed citizens with financial resources was practically unusable at the height of the shutdown. After the service cost taxpayers $78 million, all that they were left with was no financial support and disillusionment during a time of crisis.

This sparked headlines liked “Florida Is A Terrible State to Be An Unemployed Person“, and with stories about Florida’s unemployment portal rendered completely useless permeating around the whole country. An online portal that was supposed to be a nexus for relief during a crisis simply became another point of desperation for the citizens who were most affected.

Code For South Florida’s Call To Action

Healthcare.gov and Florida Connect are only two examples, one national and one regional, in which taxpayers funded the development and implementation of technology solutions meant to serve them, but instead of enhancing the connection between governments and its people, these black swans left behind unfulfilled promises and an embittered public unable to claim the public aid and services to which they are legally entitled.

We find the repeated complacency for technology solutions that work against the people instead of for the people unacceptable. This consistent failure is a circumstance that we are working to change through ethical, effective, and sustainable practices around Civic Technology – technology that truly serves and represents the needs of the public, and brings together communities to break down the silos and barriers required for collaboration on lasting widespread impact. 

Our road to success is long and uncertain, but by creating solutions for localized impact that can be scaled to other regions and municipalities, we can ensure lasting change in our vibrant South Florida and beyond.

We will explore what is Civic Technology in the next post in this series where we talk about our mission and why it is important for a South Florida worth fighting for.