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How tech workers in the government could make everyone’s life easier: ‘Get rid of the paper’

On the latest episode of Recode Decode, U.S. Digital Service Acting Administrator Matt Cutts shares his pitch for paperless visa applications and more.

A pile of paper Anthony Devlin / Getty

“We’re not doing anything with blockchain,” said Matt Cutts, the acting administrator of the U.S. Digital Service. For now, at least, the tech-focused division of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget is focused on the more basic ways that technology can make Americans’ interactions with the government user-friendly.

“I am less worried about machine learning, I am less worried about artificial intelligence or the blockchain,” Cutts said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “I am more worried about the veteran who calls the VA every single day at 9 am.”

Cutts, who spent nearly 17 years at Google before joining the USDS in 2017, said that’s not a rhetorical example. There really was a veteran, named Charles, who was calling every day to check in on the status of a disability claim appeal.

“All we did was implement a progress bar so that he knows where he stands out of 100,000-plus veterans,” Cutts said. “So even though he knows he might have a two-and-a-half-year-plus wait, just knowing where you stand in that queue makes you heard and respected and valued.”

He urged tech workers to consider a temporary tour of duty in the government because applying Silicon Valley’s “agile practices” to things like veterans’ benefits or Medicare can make a huge difference in people’s lives. And contrary to what some might expect, he said the USDS’ work has remained just as nonpartisan under President Trump as it was under President Obama.

“There is so much good work to be done — high-impact work that can help a regular person get access to the sorts of government services that they need to have,” Cutts said.

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, Cutts did propose one big idea that could help everyone, both those working in government and everyday citizens: “Get rid of paper.”

“I would be extremely ecstatic,” he said. “For example, H-1B visas. Millions of pieces of paper are shipped to a place, which then does a lottery, and ships all that paper back to the people who lost in the lottery. If you could just start with a preregistraton page that was digital ...”

“We’re kind of used to seeing these pictures of supervisors’ offices with stacks and stacks up to the ceiling, which are unsearchable,” Cutts added. “Some people think they can do better by scanning or faxing stuff in, and then having an electronic version of that. The fact is, it needs to be digital-native from the beginning. That’s how it’s searchable, that’s how you can really check for errors.”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • On Too Embarrassed to Ask, also hosted by Kara Swisher, we answer the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara.

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