A repair job for government technology

US government technology has a well-deserved reputation for being expensive and horrible.

Computer systems sometimes run on software from the Sputnik era. A Pentagon project to modernize military technology has little to show after five years. During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans have struggled to get government assistance like UI, vaccine appointments, and food stamps due to bureaucracy, technology inflexible and other problems.

Whether you think government should be more or less involved in the lives of Americans, taxpayers deserve good value for the technology we pay for. And we often don’t understand. It’s part of Robin Carnahan’s job to tackle this problem.

Former Missouri secretary of state and government technical consultant, Carnahan had been one of my guides on how public sector technology could work better. Then, in June, she was confirmed as a director of the General Services Administration, the agency that oversees government acquisitions, including technology.

Carnahan said she and other officials in the Biden administration wanted the technology used to fight wars or file taxes to be as efficient as our favorite app.

“Bad technology flows good policy,” Carnahan said. “We’re on a mission to make government technology more user-friendly and to be smarter about the way we buy and use it.”

Carnahan highlighted three areas she wanted to address: First, changing the process of purchasing technology by government agencies to recognize that technology requires constant updates. Second, simplify technology for people using government services. And third, make it more attractive for people with technological expertise to work for the government, even temporarily.

All of this is easier said than done, of course. Members of the government have already promised similar changes, and this is not a quick fix. Technological dysfunction is also often a symptom of bad policies.

But from Carnahan’s perspective, one way to build confidence in government is to prove it can be competent. And technology is a key area to show it.

The development of this skill starts with something very boring: budgeting and procurement. Carnahan told me last year that governments tend to fund digital infrastructure like they do for bridges. They buy it once and try not to think about it too much for the next few decades. This mindset does not match technology, which works best with constant improvement and maintenance.

Carnahan said she was trying to get the message across to Congress and government agencies that a predictable amount of government funding distributed over time is a better approach to buying technology. Carnahan said the government should think of technology as Lego sets, with parts that are regularly exchanged or rebuilt. (Hey, metaphors work for me.)

She also hopes to use the technology to help eliminate the headaches that prevent people from accessing public services.

As an example, Carnahan mentioned that she wanted to dramatically increase the number of government services accessible through login.gov. There, people can create a single digital account to interact with multiple services, like those for applying for government jobs or seeking disaster assistance for a small business.

And like many people in government, Carnahan also offers people with technical expertise to work for the public sector. Its appeal is partly pragmatist and partly patriotic.

“Government is the best way to impact people’s lives,” Carnahan said.

She said remote working has also made government jobs more realistic for people who don’t want to move to Washington, and therefore have programs like the US Digital Service and the new US Digital Corps, which allow technologists to work. short periods with civil servants. .

Carnahan does not claim that it will be easy to change decades of relative dysfunction in government technology. But she thinks it’s crucial 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. for a health insurance claim.

Getting websites to work is the basic thing that people expect from government these days, ”she said.

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