Focusing on the end user, harnessing APIs and creating incentive programs are among the ways experts in Protocol's Braintrust say the public sector could hasten modernization efforts.
Administrator at U.S. Digital Service
Government can learn how tech companies use rapid iteration to build good things quickly. Knowing who a piece of technology is for is key. At the U.S. Digital Service, we try to talk to end-users early and often. Don't reinvent the wheel. Agencies don't need to build custom code for every possible use case. Often, good solutions already exist and can be built on top of. Code.gov and Code.mil are repositories of software already built by the government that can be freely reused and adapted.
Another piece of the puzzle is procurement. We've been working across the federal government to streamline procurement for technology — buying tech isn't the same as buying a helicopter or office furniture. Through a program called DITAP, we've been training contracting officers to better understand and evaluate technology so agencies have the tools they need to execute their missions. During this time of rapid digitization, our team at CMS has been supporting the agency with 1,135 waivers to buy software that better enables remote work. Rapid iteration on policy and process, conducting user research, leveraging open source, and understanding the technology being procured are all key lessons the tech industry can offer government.
Global Head of Policy at Plaid
Stop thinking about your agency as providing a discrete service that requires a bespoke technology built specifically for your mission. Start thinking about your agency as a platform that delivers a set of constantly changing services to your constituents. Then do what platforms do and look for solutions that perform a specific function and can be easily combined with other solutions to collectively meet all your stakeholder needs. In short: APIs not enterprise.
The 20th-century transformation of the shipping industry provides a useful metaphor. Long-distance shipping used to depend on hundreds of people packing ships in effectively bespoke ways. When stacked containers deemphasized the contents in favor of standardization, costs went down, speed went up and the international trade of goods went from 20% of the global economy in the 1960s to 50% today.
APIs offer the same value, letting you easily connect different types of software to a core platform to meet your needs, then quickly changing out APIs to meet new or different needs. Think of how many apps on your phone will show you the location of your delivery or ride-share driver. Each GPS and mapping software isn't built individually; they connect to the API for Google or Apple Maps.
Most simply, government agencies could utilize APIs by allowing citizens to share information about themselves — often information held by other government agencies — in order to participate in government programs. From SNAP to unemployment insurance, many consumer-facing government services are still paper-heavy and reliant on antiquated software that crumbles under pressure. Consumers could leverage APIs to share their real-time income and employment data to assess their eligibility to receive benefits, making the agency function like a platform.
The government has shown signs of thinking along these lines, with its Login.gov website in particular. But a step toward API adoption would unlock potential for government agencies to enter the digital age smoothly and without jeopardizing legacy technology or their ability to meet their constituents' needs.
SVP Strategy and Government Relations at Salesforce
Every organization is evaluating its technology infrastructure to survive and eventually thrive in the "next normal," an era in which physical interactions must be limited.
The private sector is grappling with this challenge, of course, but is better positioned than government agencies because companies have been investing in digital capabilities for years. As customers, we expect companies — and government agencies — to provide personalized, intuitive, mobile-first services that suit how we live and work. These rising expectations pose a challenge to the public sector, where agencies are still largely built on an analog foundation.
Public sector leaders can lean into this challenge by embracing full digital transformation — enabling telework at scale and providing simple, digital experiences to the stakeholders they serve. As with any service industry, every government interaction begins with a case that is routed, approved and delivered, an experience that can and should be digitized. To create consistency in the operational environment, agencies should embrace connected apps, a system by which corporate employees can get work done at home. In a perfect world, those connected web apps should also be mobile-ready. Government employees and stakeholders would also benefit from more "self-service" online portals to improve efficiency and provide more control. Finally, APIs are the key for unlocking legacy data and essential for going digital at speed.
CEO at Tusk Ventures
Incentives. In the private sector, success is judged by profit and share price (or valuation) based on a series of very concrete KPIs with, in good organizations, clear change and accountability if the goals are not being met. In politics, the incentive is reelection (with KPIs of press coverage, polling and fundraising), and for much of government, the incentive is to make it through the day/week/month/year without too many headaches or too much change.
As a result, far too many government programs that are ineffective still continue, there's not nearly enough emphasis on what actually works and what doesn't, and there's little accountability for results. When government has adopted an approach based on objective metrics (like the NYPD's famed CompStat program), it has often worked, but because it also makes people have to work harder and be held accountable, most government officials avoid it. They shouldn't.
Executive Director at Technology CEO Council
When the pandemic post-mortem is written, it will clearly show that government, health care and education were the least prepared sectors, and their stakeholders suffered most. In stark contrast, the more digitized sectors of our economy proved the most buoyant. Technology companies led the way, shifting employees to remote work before government mandates, and enabling the rest of us to continue working, playing and learning. Digital readiness begat pandemic resilience beyond the technology sector itself too. From retail to banking to communications to manufacturing, businesses that had embraced mobility, the cloud and broadband-enabled services persisted, often increasing productivity despite the lockdowns.
This contrast will only accelerate after COVID. In 2020's America, it is not the strongest organizations that survive nor the most intelligent individuals. The businesses, government agencies and people who are most digital-ready and adaptable to technological change are the ones who will succeed. Survival of the connected-est. The fourth industrial revolution is accelerating, and even more than before the pandemic, software is "eating the world."
Government should apply these lessons in two ways. First, as policymakers focus on helping Americans rebuild our economy and our lives, they can take meaningful steps to close these digital divides and accelerate our comeback by making broadband more available, affordable, accessible and more American. Second, government needs to start leading by example in their own use of emerging digital technologies to save money and improve services.
See who's who in Protocol's Braintrust. (Updated May 6, 2020)
Questions, comments or suggestions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kevin McAllister ( @k__mcallister) is a Research Editor at Protocol, leading the development of Braintrust. Prior to joining the team, he was a rankings data reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw structured data projects for the Journal's strategy team.
More from Braintrust