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How Technology Can Save Government

2014 March 26
by Greg Satell

The Obama administration had been preparing for years to launch its signature policy, the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.  With everything riding in the balance, the whole effort very nearly failed—because of a website.

Well, not a website exactly, but a dizzying array of servers, protocols and regulations.  The technology behind the website needed to manage all of it in order to provide service to the public.  On launch day, it fell flat.

That was embarrassing, but the problem goes far beyond health care.  Virtually everything the government does these days, from drivers’ licenses to voter registration to retirement benefits, requires a robust technological platform that must overcome challenges specific to the public sector.  Now, a team of technologists thinks they may have a solution.

Why Government Doesn’t Work

A government is, in many ways, much harder to run than a business.  You can’t choose who you provide service to, have to comply with a labyrinth of regulations and management, by design, changes constantly.  When technology is involved, there are four additional challenges:

1. Balkanization of Standards: The US has 3500 jurisdictions, each of which has its own systems, regulations and standards, many of which are decades old.  To be deployed nationally, technology has to be made compatible with each of these jurisdictions.

2. Data Formatting: The need for data standards is also somewhat heightened in the public sector.  In addition to the usual privacy issues, you also have political issues about which agencies can see which kinds of data.  These conventions vary, so each jurisdiction needs its system to be designed to suit its regulations.

3. Interstate Cooperation: Besides working effectively within jurisdictions, technology also needs to work across state lines, so that things like drivers’ licenses and voter registration won’t be duplicated in two places.

4. Scale: A startup like Facebook can start small and correct mistakes as it goes, but everything in government has to be built at scale.

So building technology for the public sector faces some daunting challenges and failures like Healthcare.gov are more the rule than they are the exception.  If we’re ever going to make government compatible with today’s world, we have to seriously improve the way it develops, procures and implements technology.

The Open Source Digital Voting Foundation

In 2006, Gregory Miller was already a successful technology executive, with stints at Netscape and in the health care industry under his belt.  He had developed a passion for disruption by disintermediation, upending industries that had become protected by technological, scale or regulatory barriers.

At the same time, he had become increasingly troubled by a series of voting scandals.  There was the Bush-Gore disaster of 2000, a smaller scale mess in Ohio in 2004 and also problems in the 2006 midterm elections.  It seemed that, although the problems threatened to undermine the very fabric of our democratic system, no one was working on a solution.

In a flash of insight, it occurred to Miller that he had already overcome similar challenges before.  He had worked on security standards at Netscape to enable e-commerce, identity management in healthcare and a series of interoperability problems throughout his career.

The more he thought about it, the more it seemed that this problem wasn’t so different.  So in November, 2006, Miller and some friends set up the non-profit organization that is now called Open Source Elections Technology Foundation (OSET) to create open standards for voting that would be customizable, scalable and politically neutral.

Turning Bureaucrats Into Hackers

Miller quickly realized that he would need to approach the OSET differently than the projects he had done in the private sector.  Most open source projects put code at the center, which hackers augment and improve for fun, to work on their skills, build a reputation or to improve compatibility with their own systems.

To make the digital voting effort succeed, he would have to turn the bureaucrats into hackers and get them to feel ownership of project.  So Miller and his team went to every meeting of voting associations they could find, asked questions, investigated problems and took the advice they heard to heart.

And the work paid off.  OSET now works closely with both major organizations that administer elections in America, the National Association of State Election Directors and the National Association of Secretaries of State.  The new technology is currently being deployed in about a dozen jurisdictions.

There’s still a long road ahead, but it looks like things are off to a solid start.

The Inevitably Collision of Technology and Politics

When Steve Jobs recruited John Scully to become CEO at Apple, he asked him if he wanted to spend his life selling sugar water or come to Apple and change the world.  Many tech entrepreneurs feel the same way.

Yet it’s becoming increasingly clear that tech denizens can’t truly change the world unless they take an active role in public life.  From net neutrality to SOPA to immigration reform, many of the most important technology issues have little to do with code.  At the same time, skilled hands are badly needed to truly bring government into the 21st century.

So we’re likely to see further collisions of technology and politics and OSET may serve as a good model to follow.  By directly engaging with stakeholders and building systems to solve their problems, we really can make a difference.

– Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. March 26, 2014

    I agree that technology can play a big role in helping government’s deliver better and more efficient service. I wrote a blog post recently looking at most of Toronto’s leading candidates for mayor are ignoring startups at a time when cities such as San Francisco are embracing them to drive innovation – http://www.markevans.ca/2014/03/20/torontos-mayoralty-startups/

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Good point. Thanks Mark.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  2. Julius Kravjar permalink
    March 31, 2014

    Technology can save government money (better said: taxpayer’s money)

    But there should be a will to do the systematic step. US GAO (US Government Accountability Office) in the report Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue, published in March 2011 shows the overview of federal programs or functional areas where unnecessary duplication, overlap, or fragmentation exists and where there are other opportunities for potential cost savings or enhanced revenues. In that report there are identified 81 areas for consideration. Senator Tom Coburn, who pushed for the report, estimated it identifies between $100 billion and $200 billion in duplicative spending. tecnology is ready to solve this problem (centralised plagiarism detection system).

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Interesting point. Thanks Julius.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

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