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US government technology has a well-deserved reputation for being expensive and terrible.
Computer systems sometimes work with software from the Sputnik era… Pentagon military equipment modernization project little can be shown in five years. During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans struggled to get government assistance such as unemployment insurance, prescribing a vaccine and food stamps due to bureaucracy, inflexible technology and other problems.
Regardless of whether you believe that the government should be more or less involved in the lives of Americans, taxpayers deserve a good mark on the technology we pay for. And we often don’t understand this. This is part Robin Carnahanwork to solve this problem.
A former Missouri secretary of state and government technical advisor, Carnahan has been one of my guides in how public sector technology can work better. Then in June she was confirmed in his capacity as administrator of the Office of General Services, an agency that oversees public procurement, including in the area of technology.
Carnahan said she and other Biden administration officials wanted the technology used to wage wars or tax filing to be as effective as our favorite app.
“Bad technology refutes good politics,” Carnahan told me. “Our mission is to make government technology more user-friendly and smarter in the way we buy and use it.”
Carnahan highlighted three areas she would like to tackle: First, change the way government agencies buy technology to recognize that technology requires constant updates. Second, simplify technology for people using government services. And third, make it more attractive for people with technical expertise to work for the government, even temporarily.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. The people in government have promised similar changes before, and this is not a quick fix. Technological dysfunction is also common symptom of bad politics…
But, according to Carnahan, one way to build confidence in government is to prove it can be competent. And technology is an important area to show that.
Developing this competence starts with something very boring – budgeting and purchasing. Carnahan told me last year that governments tend to finance digital infrastructure like they made bridges… They buy it once and try not to think about it for the next few decades. This mentality is incompatible with technology, which works best with continuous improvement and maintenance.
Carnahan said she was trying to get the message across to Congress and government agencies that predictable government funding over time is the best approach to buying technology. Carnahan said the government should think about technologies like Lego sets, with parts that are regularly changed or refurbished. (Hey, my metaphors work.)
She also hopes to use technology to ease the headaches that make it difficult for people to access public services.
As one example, Karnahan mentioned that she wanted to significantly expand the number of public services available through login.gov… There, people can create a single digital account to interact with multiple services, such as applying for jobs in government or applying for disaster relief for small businesses.
And like many people in government, Karnahan also pitch for people with technical knowledge work in the public sector. Its appeal is partly pragmatism and partly patriotism. “Government is the single best way to influence people’s lives,” Carnahan said.
She said teleworking also made government jobs more real for people who don’t want to move to Washington, and so they have programs like US digital service and new USA Digital Corpsthat allow technologists to work with government officials for a short time.
Carnahan makes no claim that it will be easy to reverse decades of relative dysfunction in state technology. But she believes it’s critical now that technology is often the primary way people interact with local, state and federal governments, whether it’s registering to vote or getting help applying to Medicare.
“Making the damn websites work is the fundamental thing people expect from government these days,” she said.
Before we leave …
How do we keep kids safe online? US law more or less prohibits the use of Internet services by users under the age of 13. My colleagues from the New York Times Opinion talked to young children who are online despite the restrictions, and has proven that the US is learning from the new UK child protection guidelines.
(Opinion Today has a backstory for these smart kids. You can sign here.)
A hammer falls on spyware: Apple is suing NSO Group, an Israeli company whose software has been used by governments to spy on the smartphones of human rights defenders, journalists and dissidents. My colleague Nicole Perlroth writes that the lawsuit and the recent NSO blacklisting by the US government could be a step towards increasing control over the global spyware market…
Thoughtful gift ideas! Brian H. Chen, Consumer Technology Columnist for The Times, great ideas for technology-related gifts these are not gadgets. (I bet Brian’s wife will love her digital photography lesson. Don’t spoil the surprise.)
I’m obsessed with the NASA spacecraft that launched today a mission to crash into an asteroid the size of a sports stadium knock him off course. Yes, this is a bit like the plot of the movie “Armageddon”.
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