Why we need a 'Digital WPA' similar to the Depression-era Works Progress Administration

Why we need a 'Digital WPA' similar to the Depression-era Works Progress Administration
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How can we treat the economic symptoms of massive unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic? An idea from the history of the Great Depression may help. In the 1930s, the U.S. government created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide government-funded jobs for millions of unemployed workers building roads, hospitals, and other public infrastructure. Today, we have an option that wasn’t available then: Creating a “Digital WPA,” where much of the work is digital, not physical. That means the work can be done from anywhere, so it can still be done even if we have to continue some form social distancing for a year or more. And it even provides a bridge from unemployment today to the digital jobs of tomorrow.

Many of the workers in such a Digital WPA could do tasks that are desperately needed to cope with the pandemic, such as tracking the contacts of people who are infected or coordinating care for home-bound seniors. Wouldn’t it be better if we could pay people to do urgent, socially important work like this, instead of simply providing them with unemployment checks or other forms of government support?

These workers can also do other digital tasks besides just dealing with the pandemic. Some might remotely monitor security cameras in government buildings or X-ray scanners in airports. Others might do the detailed, labor-intensive work needed to convert manual medical records to electronic ones. The original WPA even included people producing art, music, and other kinds of cultural work. Some of the artists it supported — including Orson Welles, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Jackson Pollock — later became household names. What if today, instead of paying unemployment, we could pay a talented young musician — who got laid off from a job waiting tables — to develop new forms of digital art or music instead? 

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The first thing needed for this digital work — in addition to the funding — is an infrastructure for people to work from anywhere. Fortunately, this infrastructure already exists with the internet, smartphones, and other connected devices. For workers who don’t already have access to this infrastructure, perhaps part of the program would include providing it.

But just as important as connectivity is a way of defining and managing the work. The most obvious way to do this is with traditional organizations. For example, the original WPA hired new government employees to manage their projects, and that would certainly be possible now. But it would also be possible for some of this management to be subcontracted by governments to existing companies or non-profits. For example, the state of Massachusetts is working with the nonprofit Partners in Health to hire and train about 1,000 workers to do “contact tracing.” These workers will call people who’ve tested positive for the coronavirus and then follow up with everyone with whom they’ve been in close contact.

And in some cases, companies might even be paid to use their own employees — who would otherwise be laid off. For instance, airline call center employees, who are experienced at dealing effectively with the public, might be good at doing contract tracing, too. And maybe auto company employees, who are adept and experienced at managing complex supply chains, would be good at managing supply chains for producing medical ventilators. 

However, as the pandemic — and the world — evolve, there will be many tasks that are desperately needed for a time and then replaced by other, newly urgent ones. How can we manage these extremely dynamic needs?

We’ll still need people to manage the online workers, but today’s online labor markets can greatly facilitate finding and recruiting workers in just this kind of ever-changing environment. For example, Amazon Mechanical Turk specializes in paying relatively unskilled workers to do small “microtasks” like simple data validation, while other sites, such as UpWork, 99Designs, and Freelancer.com focus on larger tasks that require artistic, technical, or other skills.

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Whether or not these online labor markets keep the Digital WPA tasks separate from other tasks on their platforms, there is an important potential advantage of using such platforms. As unemployed workers perform this work, they would become familiar with new ways of working online, and they might find more and more tasks they could do for other paying customers besides the government. In other words, they would be learning new skills for the increasingly digital jobs that will emerge as our economy restarts after the pandemic subsides.

Of course, a Digital WPA isn’t a panacea for all our unemployment problems. Some people in the 1930s had joked that WPA stood for “We Poke Along” because they felt the WPA employees didn’t work very hard. It won’t be trivial to determine the right mix of pay levels and work requirements to motivate workers while still providing incentives for them to return to the private sector when possible. And in this government-supported version of a gig economy, it will also be important to avoid creating digital sweatshops and, instead, to provide livable incomes and reasonable working conditions for the workers.

But something like a Digital WPA would be a very powerful treatment for the massive unemployment this pandemic is causing.

Thomas Malone is the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, and the author of The Future of Work (2004) and Superminds (2018).