Reframing the Conversation About Technology and Government

Opinion

When the conversation turns to government and technology, all too frequently the narrative becomes one of hopelessness.

Healthcare.gov, the ancient computer sitting on the desk at the DMV, and the recent attacks by hackers on various government departments all help to reinforce this story of futility. And, inevitably, the questions get framed as, “Why can’t government be more like”—insert your favorite technology company here, Google, Apple, Amazon, etc.

Yet it’s important to remember that companies like Google and Apple are organizations with their own pathologies. Apple almost failed as a company. And not everything Google does is a success. Google Glass and Google+ both spring to mind. It’s important that we don’t follow that narrative path blindly, but, instead, carefully analyze where the technology comparison between the public and private sectors is valid, and where it isn’t.

After all, when it comes to the digital world, there are laggards and leaders in both government and business. That’s why it’s so difficult to make broad and sweeping assertions about relative technological prowess. Indeed, the technology sophistication within the airline, health insurance, and even retail industries varies greatly. The recent computer-based scheduling problems or the endless healthcare paperwork one has to fill out, suggest that not all companies are paradigms of technology efficiency. And the proficiencies around technology adoption and data-driven decision-making in industry vary just like they do in cities, counties, states, and countries. There are actually many governments—or, at least, parts of governments—that quietly use technology very effectively.

The challenge for everyone in both the private and public sector is that consumers expect the level of service and responsiveness of government technology to rival the very best of what they experience in consumer technology.

But the consequences of failing to live up to those expectations are different for government and enterprise. When a company fails to deliver technology that measures up, it loses market share, revenue and margins—and eventually puts itself out of business. When a government can’t deliver technology that improves the quality of life for citizens, there’s a crisis of confidence.

And that’s the position that many governments find themselves in today. With voters used to a steady stream of technology breakthroughs or services that feel intuitive and easy, there’s a strong sense that the public sector is either unable to effectively deliver digital services or can’t do so at a pace that the public is increasingly accustomed to. In either case, the risk is that government slowly erodes its credibility. This isn’t a hippie revolution based on values; it’s a boring and slow-moving rebellion based on expectations.

So, how can the digital laggards in the public sector catch up? The same way that the digital laggards in the private sector can—by recognizing the tremendous sea change that technology and data-driven decision-making represents and shifting their culture and organizational roles to meet modern technology demands.

And, thus, for all the talk of gadgets and technology, a huge part of the problem is one of human capital.

Not only is there a shortage of people that are fluent in understanding and using data, but older organizations may not even know how to recruit, manage, and leverage people with these skills.

For their part, governments face a unique challenge in this area.

We need more public sector employees with sharp-edged data literacy and technology skills. Yet we also need them to have a strong and solid set of public service values and ethics that will prevent them from misusing data and driving “evidence-based public policy” in the wrong direction, or in wrong ways that exploit or mislead people.

Finding these employees, and paying them a salary competitive with what they can earn in the private sector, will not be easy. But there are numerous Massive Open Online Courses that offer introductions to data science. And, happily, there are large numbers of open data sets for aspiring students to play with. More challenging is finding places to discuss the implications and ethics of this. It would be great to see government leaders and employees diving into books like “Seeing Like a State” or “Ethics of Big Data” to educate themselves.

There have always been legions of people willing to choose City Hall over Silicon Valley when making definitive career decisions. But we need to help them before and during their careers so they can become fluent in technology and literate with data. If not, our crisis of confidence in government could continue for some time.

David Eaves advises governments on open government and open data, and businesses and nonprofits on open source strategies and community management. Follow @

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