Actionable Information: The New Intersection of Governments and Marketplaces

If one part of the federal government cannot design and run a big computer system, how is another able to collect records of millions of conversations had by citizens of friendly countries and even snoop on their politicians?

The Economist, November 2, 2013

The central irony of the age in which we live is sad, and maybe a bit scary. Government can read our e-mails, but ask it to verify our identity or income – two of the key choke points in the system and data which government already has – and then send our data along to the health insurance company? Well, it was only able to do that for six people on the first day!

UNCLE SAM'S NIECE WANTS apply for health insurance. At least, before she was deleted.

UNCLE SAM’S NIECE WANTS YOU…to apply for health insurance. At least, before she was deleted.

Should we give the government some slack? It seems to me that, and the various state websites like, is really the first new government program for the citizen-consumer to be launched in the digital era. The website is the primary way to apply; you are supposed to be able to receive actionable information and make immediate decisions. Sure, you can apply for Unemployment Insurance online, but I bet we’d be surprised (or maybe not) to see how much of the backend isn’t automated, but actual people taking data from the web system, making a determination, and then entering everything it into another system to cut you a check. I find a site like to be pretty functional, but the website came years after the agency was established and (fairly) efficient at already processing high volumes of applications, renewals, and the like. And there is no printing out your ID card or registration card and stickers from the DMV website. That still comes by mail.

The truth is government is actually pretty good when it comes to collecting data. It collects LOTS of data. More than a lot of us would like. And, yes, it sometimes even manages to make that data available for us to see. But collecting data is not the same as putting it to good use and making it easy for you, the citizen-consumer, to get things done.

This is readily apparent in education. I get asked all the time by friends with kids entering kindergarten, “where can I find information about schools in my town/city/metro area?” In California, I can think of at least two sites, (remember the dash between ed and data!) and (remember the 1!). They aren’t, it is clear from one or two clicks, the easiest to use. It would take some time for me, someone whose job requires him to interpret education data, to make sense of it all.

Now take it to the next step, imagine if you could use one of these sites to actually compare schools and pick the best one based on the specific needs of your child? What if instead of driving to the school, filling out the paperwork, and then going back a day or two before school starts to look at a posted list to determine who your child’s teacher was, you enrolled through an easy-to-use site? What if this site could tell you which schools have space or which you would need to wait-list? Crazy thought: what if it told you you qualified for tuiton-support (i.e., a voucher!) for a great private school. Crazier thought: what if when you enrolled in any school, traditional, charter, or private, it sent you a confirmation email with an appointment time to introduce your child to your child’s teacher?

This scenario is hard to imagine because it is so far beyond the existing reality. Not to mention, it assumes much greater choice through open enrollment, charter schools, private schools, and ditching arbitrary school district boundaries. We would have to get comfortable with the of government running a marketplace, rather than just being a provider of one set program.

Photo by Daniel Ramirez. Used under creative commons license.

Photo by Daniel Ramirez. Used under creative commons license.

Yet, running a marketplace is exactly what the federal and state governments are trying to do with and its state kin. They establish basic parameters for the types of health care plans that can be offered. They provide you with ways to evaluate those plans and providers. And then they allow you to enroll and determine how much you have to pay. Now, I know some of you will point out that Amazon, Google, et al, can already do essentially the same thing for a lot of stuff. But an individual has never had that for health care before. On top of that, health care is, arguably, a public good that the government has much more interest in regulating. When the healthcare marketplaces start working for everyone who needs them, they will actually be something quite revolutionary.

Could it inspire a revolution in other services? Why shouldn’t government, when it comes to education, work for us in a similar matter?

In August, I attended a presentation by the developer of Now, the Illinois State Board of Education is a government agency and I doubt all of its members are as eager for school choice as I am. But the agency does understand that parents, as citizens-consumers, need good information about the public schools, including charter schools, available to their children. The site just rolled out. More data needs to be added. Yet, already one can tell its mission from the front page: rather than just give you an HTML site with simple compliance-based data files, it wants to provide you with actionable information. Information that you can both understand and use to make informed decisions.

It’s a great start.

One thought on “Actionable Information: The New Intersection of Governments and Marketplaces

  1. Pingback: What Type of Society Do We Want to Live in? | Sean Robert Gill

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