Why Massachusetts Struggled to Make a Vaccine Website

February 24, 2021

In 1872, a fire broke out in the basement of a warehouse on Summer Street in Boston. As flames spread to nearby buildings, Boston firefighters called for backup. Neighboring towns responded, only to discover that their hoses would not fit into the hydrants. The couplings that connect the hydrants to the hoses had not been standardized. This hampered the help the firefighters could give, and thirty people died. 776 buildings burned. Fast forward to 2021. Companies and governments are trying to share information about vaccine appointments. Their systems cannot connect with each other. People cannot get shots. The death toll is ongoing. History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Why is government struggling to make a working vaccine registration website? Building software is challenging and requires experts to direct it. Massachusetts lacks professional development opportunities for its staff to develop the skills required to build modern software. Finally the government has yet to take leadership in establishing standards for the exchange of data within itself, never mind among a federation of private companies to which it delegated vaccine appointment responsibility.

Buying and building software is hard, which is why agencies and budget offices need to hire technical talent in-house. An agency in Massachusetts might have in-house lawyers to handle complex legal issues, but complex technical procurements are left to staff that have never written a line of code. Without that experience it is hard to spot issues and understand the effort required to undertake a task. Asking a software vendor whether they can do a particular thing is like asking a car salesman whether you need a new car: the answer will always be yes. We need experts who can tell us whether we should do a particular thing and how it should be done. Having technical talent at the table will make sure the right questions are being asked throughout the software procurement and oversight process.

Public servants succeed despite chronic underfunding of their efforts. You would be shocked at the leanness of the public sector. It makes the private sector look bloated. Responsibilities that might be an entire department at Google fall upon one or two state or municipal employees. Apple has Apple University to help its employees learn new skills. For public sector employees everything is learned on the fly and on your own. The Government of the United Kingdom has established the Government Digital Services Academy to teach its public servants digital skills and techniques. We should do this in Massachusetts.

Finally the Commonwealth should establish a Data Standards Authority, modeled after the same authority in the United Kingdom. Standards are how we can have data couplings that let state agencies and municipalities talk with each other. As the Commonwealth adopts standards, the private sector will see this leadership and learn what it needs to do to share information on anything from vaccine appointments to construction plans. We can make sure when the next crises arrives, we can work together.

These steps would merely be a down payment on the work required to modernize state government. To make this work the state needs to successfully recruit, train, and retain product managers, designers, and developers in agencies across the Commonwealth. These individuals need to reflect the diversity of our community, and build their tools with empathy and understanding of existing people and ways. It will not happen overnight, but no place is better equipped to do this than Massachusetts.

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.