Cubicles as far as the eye can see, each one containing a government worker clacking keys in front of an ancient, humming green screen. On the other side of those screens are millions of people trying to file for unemployment, apply for food stamps, or access any other number of government services. The website keeps crashing when they try to submit their online form, or they wait in line for hours only to reach the end and find that the piece of mail they brought to verify their identity is invalid. Try again tomorrow.
This is a familiar trope about dysfunctional government, one that emerged to serve the political goals of the right during the crisis that was, in the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “the close of the golden age of US capitalism.” The stereotype—mindlessly bureaucratic, hopelessly outdated—was used to justify attacks on organized labor, tax cuts for capital, and the hollowing out of what little safety net the US established after the Great Depression and World War II. Historian Mar Hicks writes in their piece for this series that the implications of that hollowing out for government technology were that “as state governments have moved to slash their budgets, they’ve been less and less inclined to pay for the labor needed to maintain critical systems.” We asked a few of the people who were tasked with making those systems work anyway about their decades-long careers in government technology.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, Jed Wagner began architecting the federal system that handles veterans’ benefits appeals—a system that he alone was responsible for for three decades. Around the same time, Mike Schwab was a unionized employee of Illinois’ Central Management Services, developing and maintaining mainframe applications that other state agencies used in their day-to-day work. A few decades later, Adam Grandt-Nesher was typing Hebrew blindly into dumb terminals, the start of a winding career through taming legacy systems across private and public sectors that landed him in the middle of mainframe modernization efforts for the US federal government today. We sat down with the three of them to get a kaleidoscopic picture of how the government technology systems we have today came to be, and what they will look like in the future.
The interviews included in this series were edited by Jen Kagan, and conducted by Christa Hartsock and Julie Sutherland, who work together at Code for America, a technology nonprofit that works with governments to better deliver services like SNAP, Medicaid, and criminal record clearance. Christa is a software engineer and Julie is a designer and qualitative researcher. The interview team would like to thank Mike Schwab, Adam Grandt-Nesher, Jed Wagner, Marianne Bellotti, Philip Young, Teresa Curtis, Jason Anton, Joe Klemmer, Mike Cowden, John O’Duinn, Genevieve Gaudet, Zoe Blumenfeld, Jen Pahlka, and the many others who fielded questions, chased mainframe leads, and shaped the series.
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