WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden will sign an executive order on Monday aimed at saving Americans time and frustration when seeking a wide range of federal services, such as renewing passports, applying for Social Security benefits and getting help after natural disasters.
The White House released details of the order on Monday, ahead of an expected afternoon signing by Biden. Parts of the order were also provided in advance to advocacy groups who called on the government to improve its level of service to the public.
The order aims to reduce the current bureaucratic mess, in which people often have to travel to offices, endure long phone calls or battle mail and fax delays when trying to contact federal agencies.
White House officials said they hoped it could help renew faith in government and democracy itself at a time when deep political polarization has eroded trust in American institutions.
“This executive order is really focused on how the federal government provides services to the public and ensures that we provide high quality products to the public,” said Neera Tanden, senior adviser to the president. “As we ask the government to do more, we can make sure the government does it better.”
That’s a tall order, considering the fact that the federal government has persisted in its heavy-handed ways despite repeated attempts over generations to make it more nimble. President Bill Clinton pledged in 1993 to “reinvent government” with an interagency task force.
The order comes at a critical time for Biden to show he can deliver results. The country has seen a strong economic rebound as coronavirus relief programs sent money directly to Americans. But support for the president has plummeted as the United States faces inflation at a nearly four-decade high and the coronavirus pandemic lingers.
The new executive order is expected to bring government services into the digital age, said Bill Sweeney, senior vice president of government affairs for AARP, an association for older Americans.
“We do our banking online,” Sweeney said. “We do our work online. We can order food online. We can order groceries from our phone. I think people are used to this now and they are demanding that the government continue as well.
The goal is to implement most of the order’s changes in 17 federal agencies within the next year. Officials said existing funds should be sufficient to allow agencies to pay for the improvements and that better service and efficiency would ultimately save the government money. Biden planned to sign the order on Monday afternoon.
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Paul Light, a New York University public policy professor and expert on federal bureaucracy, said the initiative could be a big deal, even though the Biden administration will face hurdles.
“The problem is not in the hope but in the bureaucratic quagmire,” Light said. “The struggle to improve government services requires a vast retooling of bureaucratic wiring and a flattening of hierarchy. The federal government may be willing, but its technology is old, its personnel system slow, bureaucratic stratification relentless.
The government has identified 35 service providers in federal agencies who can reduce administrative burdens and develop “new online tools and technologies that can deliver a simple, seamless and secure customer experience”, according to a House fact sheet. White.
For retirees and the nearly 4 million Americans who turn 65 each year, the ordinance requires that they can more easily claim Social Security benefits online. Medicare beneficiaries need access to personalized online tools to save money on drugs and manage their health care. Taxpayers will be able to schedule reminders with the IRS instead of waiting on hold or having to deal with issues through letters and faxes.
For travelers, Americans will be able to renew their passports online instead of having to print forms and pay with a paper check or money order. New security machines and computers with advanced screening features are expected to streamline the process of crossing security lines for the nearly 2 million people who travel daily.
The 45 million people in debt will be able to manage their federal loans through a single portal, instead of multiple websites with different passwords. Paperwork should also be reduced for people applying for loan forgiveness.
Natural disasters strike approximately 25 million homes and small businesses in the United States each year. Survivors seeking federal assistance should no longer be required to fill out multiple forms with multiple agencies, while being able to use virtual inspections and smartphone photos of the damage to support their claims.
Military veterans should be able to access their benefits with a single login. Poorer families should find it easier to certify their income and enroll in eligible social safety net programs without the extra paperwork. Lending programs for small businesses and farmers need to become more responsive. Families receiving food aid should be able to shop online. It should become easier to update mailing addresses with the government or change names with the Social Security Administration.
Anne Zimmerman, an accountant based in the Cincinnati area, said the changes to the order are necessary because companies are often on their own as they navigate federal bureaucracy. As co-chair of the small business advocacy group for America’s Future, she was briefed by the White House about the order before it was announced.
“It’s necessary because things have really gotten worse,” Zimmerman said. “There is too big a maze to navigate when trying to deal with the government.”
Jason Miller, deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget, said the changes were aimed at building “trust between the public and their government”. Online forms could also reduce the risk of fraud, while the administration takes steps to ensure the security of personal information.
Why didn’t all this happen sooner?
Officials said the pandemic has caused an increase in calls to the IRS and other agencies. It also showed how the government could adapt and innovate despite closed offices and remote workers.
Even if government services improve, it’s unclear whether it will pay off politically for Biden, whose efforts to steer the economy to the strongest growth since 1984 have been eclipsed by inflation.
About a third of Americans rated the economy as “good” under the president, up from 47% in June, according to a survey this month by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The poll found 48% approve of Biden, while 51% disapprove.
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani contributed reporting.