Very long lines: The true cost of technical debt

Technical debt is real debt. It will eventually be paid by someone.

Zeynep Tufekci
There’s a lot that government agencies can learn from Southwest Airlines. Or, more accurately, they can learn a lot from the situation Southwest Airlines faced in December 2022.

You may remember the thousands of angry and distressed passengers Southwest stranded as they canceled more than 10,000 flights in the space of a week, many without warning. Crews waited on hold, unable to reach the airline to know where to report to work. Passenger lines for customer service stretched across airports. Luggage was lost. Rental car companies at airports saw spillover lines long enough to cause multiple hour waits. Coming away from this experience, there are people who will never trust Southwest enough to fly that airline again. And the reason for all these long lines, angry people, and lost trust boils down to unpaid technical debt.

The Southwest crisis had many causes, but the one most often pointed to was an outdated scheduling system. Southwest started as a small airline and grew rapidly, but over the years chose not to upgrade its aging technology infrastructure. It consistently chose other priorities instead, and the company continued accumulating technical debt as its operations continued to grow. In December 2022, the perfect storm of peak holiday travel and inclement weather caused the outstanding bill for Southwest’s technical debt to come due.

Technical debt is a concept that is discussed often in technology circles, but it can be a difficult one to fully appreciate — particularly for executives faced with competing budget priorities. Yet, as the experience of Southwest Airlines makes clear, technical debt has real costs. In this case, the cost of technical debt was paid by passengers. They paid with their time, and as a result, Southwest paid with its reputation. It lost the trust of the people it served.

It can be difficult to make the idea of technical debt tangible, and to make its true costs measurable and quantifiable. But the tangible manifestation of technical debt, as anyone in an airport this past holiday travel season can attest to, is lines. Very long lines.

The lines for government services

The experience of unemployment insurance (UI) applicants during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was frustratingly similar to those of Southwest Airlines passengers during the debacle. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Congress enhanced unemployment benefits, choosing to distribute funds through existing state UI systems. But aging state systems, which in many cases were designed to be inefficient, buckled under the flood of new applications. People waited in digital lines many times the length of Southwest’s passenger lines at the airport during the crisis. One study by the Economic Policy Institute found that an estimated 10 million people may have been discouraged from applying for these new benefits during the pandemic simply because the process was so difficult and lengthy. In short, the line for benefits was so long that people simply gave up, or opted not to apply for benefits at all.

State unemployment systems have been quietly accumulating technical debt for years. Just like Southwest’s executives, government leaders had prioritized other things with their resources, rather than paying down technical debt by investing in modern, efficient systems. During the pandemic, the perfect storm of an economic shutdown and the decision to distribute new benefits through existing UI systems hit. The bill for this outstanding debt came due. And just like with the Southwest Airlines holiday debacle, the people that government serves paid the cost of this debt by waiting in line.

Technical debt must eventually be paid

A good definition of technical debt comes from author Marianne Bellotti in her book on upgrading legacy technology systems.

Technical debt is a product of subpar trade-offs….. It is most likely to happen when assumptions or requirements have changed and the organization resorts to a quick fix rather than budgeting the time and resources to adapt.

Traditional thinking in government often views investment in technology as similar to investment in physical infrastructure, like roads and bridges. Most of the investment occurs upfront as the infrastructure is built, and then small amounts are invested for maintenance and upkeep over time. Unfortunately, investment in technology does not work this way.

Effective digital solutions change over time. They are never “done.” Effective digital solutions are managed as products, rather than as infrastructure. Unlike physical infrastructure, which changes infrequently, products continually evolve over time in response to the experience of the people using them. A specific feature may need to change to make it easier or more intuitive for users, or the underlying infrastructure may change to support a solution that is more robust and resilient.

When a system needs to evolve yet does not, over time technical debt accumulates. This outcome is not unusual; all projects generate some amount of technical debt for expedience, convenience, and other reasons. As this debt accrues, it is sometimes easy to ignore it for a time. But when the debt grows too large, the risk of a crisis spikes.

Individual consumers also accumulate debt. Some people take on high interest credit card debt, and then pay that debt down, avoiding long term issues. But if this debt becomes too large, crisis waits in the wings. Any unforeseen setback — a layoff, a sick relative, a high car repair bill — can turn excess credit card debt into catastrophe. The same is true for government digital services saddled with too much technical debt. Any unforeseen event can turn stress into dire straits.

Experience and trust

No entity on the planet understands the relationship between time spent waiting in line and organization trust better than Disney. Every year, millions of people around the world travel to Disney theme parks. This results, inevitably, in people waiting in lines.

Disney knows people hate waiting in line, and that a negative experience may ultimately mean guests will not return to their parks. As a result, Disney has spent decades rolling out new approaches and innovations to both shorten lines and improve the experience of people waiting in them. Disney’s laser focus on the experience of customers, particularly the amount of time they spend waiting in line, is something that governments should emulate. Waiting in line, a manifestation of poor service, erodes trust. And once trust is lost, it’s hard to win back.

This was one reason why President Biden issued the recent Executive Order on improving customer experience. This order captures the connection between the experience of people using government services and their trust in government. It directs agencies to take steps to improve the experience of users as a way to foster more trust. Steps agencies take to comply with this order will be similar to the innovations Disney uses at its theme parks — shortening the lines for digital services.

Adopting a product approach to government services

Governments must take steps to improve the experience of users if they want to rebuild the trust of the people they serve. But building a government version of Disney FastPass won’t get the job done. Instead, governments need to adopt a product approach that puts the needs of users first and continually evolves digital solutions to “keep the lines short.”

Continuing to invest in and evolve government digital services to meet the needs of people that use them will help shorten the lines. This will help increase the level of trust the American public has in their government.