Guest Columnist

A website to save us? Iowans have heard that before

From healthcare.gov to Iowa Democrats' 2020 caucus app

Test Iowa logo on header of website TestIowa.com
Test Iowa logo on header of website TestIowa.com

Gov. Kim Reynolds this week announced a new website meant to help Iowa combat the coronavirus pandemic.

TestIowa.com asks Iowans to take an online assessment and, if applicable, be directed to a free COVID-19 testing site. Leaders expect the program to conduct up to 3,000 tests per day.

Reynolds’ website is promising and I hope it works. Iowa and other states need to drastically ramp up testing capacity if we want any hope of going outside this summer.

But past experience should make us skeptical. Politicians are bad at building websites.

Already, TestIowa.com is the subject of controversy. The system requires an invasive survey, which might be necessary, but data privacy and security concerns have not yet been adequately addressed.

The out-of-state companies carrying out Iowa’s program were selected without the traditional bidding process for multimillion dollar state contracts, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported this week. Reynolds said Thursday that actor Ashton Kutcher gave her the idea.

More than a month ago, the Trump administration announced it was working with Google on a website where Americans could get referrals to COVID-19 testing sites.

“It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location,” President Donald Trump said at a March 13 news conference.

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Six weeks later, there still is no federal website connecting people to tests. Adding another layer of controversy, the forlorn federal website was under development by a company with family and business ties to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and leader of a federal coronavirus task force.

A similar situation is playing out in Michigan, where the Democratic governor’s office hired a software company with close links to Democratic campaigns to manage virus tracing data. The administration sidestepped necessary approval from the State Emergency Operations Center, the Detroit News reported this week.

Of course, who could forget the failed mobile app from the 2020 Iowa caucuses? That was just 80 days ago, by the way.

The Iowa Democratic Party, under oversight from the Democratic National Committee, hired a politically connected developer to create an app to file precinct results. The app was blamed as one factor in the Democrats’ delayed caucus results.

The prime example, the website that kicked off a new era of bad government websites, is healthcare.gov. Established to help Americans sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, the website was a dismal failure. On launch day in October 2013, perhaps as few as six people were able to enroll in health plans through the website.

In the wake of that fiasco, David Cutler, a health policy adviser to the Obama administration, told the Washington Post, “It’s very hard to think of a situation where the people best at getting legislation passed are best at implementing it. They are a different set of skills.”

Having competent web developers is a must, but that’s only part of the challenge. Government websites can only be as helpful as the policies that underlie them.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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