If Men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and the next place, oblige it to control itself.
— James Madison
Are you thinking of joining the federal government to build better digital services for those that need them? Are you new to government service?
It seems like this is an idea that has broad consensus, but much of the work that gets done in and around government technology modernization still views problems solely through the lens of technology. What if we approached this work differently? What if we viewed the problems of government technology through the lens of other disciplines?
How Poor Technology Choices Can Magnify the Challenges Faced by Those Seeing Government Services
For every 10 people who said they successfully filed for unemployment benefits during the previous four weeks three to four additional people tried to apply but could not get through the system to make a claim. Two additional people did not try to apply because it was too difficult to do so. When we extrapolate our survey findings to the full five weeks of UI claims since March 15, we estimate that an additional 8.9–13.9 million people could have filed for benefits had the process been easier. [Emphasis added]
Unemployment filing failures: New survey confirms that millions of jobless were unable to file an unemployment insurance claim. Economic Policy Institute
The impact on jobs and our economy from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the attempts by our government to provide relief for those impacted through the CARES Act has brought into sharp focus the issue of administrative burden. Administrative burden can be succinctly defined as “an individual’s experience of a policy’s implementation as onerous.”
Famed management consultant Peter Drucker is often credited with the phrase “culture eats process (or strategy) for breakfast.”
You can’t change organizations by implementing new processes alone, so the thinking goes, you have to foster a new culture in order to drive real change. To understand the degree to which this idea is accepted as management philosophy gospel, we have but to count the number of times it is repeated at conferences, in meetings, or on social media by various thought leaders.
But when we think about changing the way public sector organizations work, particularly in how they acquire and manage new technology, this idea gets flipped. In the world of government technology, process eats culture for breakfast.
There is a common misconception that data-driven decision making and the use of complex algorithms are a relatively recent phenomenon in the public sector. In fact, making use of (relatively) large data sets and complex algorithms has been fairly common in government for at least the past few decades.
As we begin constructing ethical frameworks for how data and algorithms are used, it is important that we understand how governments have traditionally employed these tools. By doing so, we can more fully understand the challenges governments face when using larger data sets and more sophisticated algorithms and design ethical and governance frameworks accordingly.
In late 2014, I had a chance to present on the main stage at the annual Code for America Summit in San Francisco. To the surprise of very few people, I was there to talk about cities and data.
Earlier that year, I had finished up my term as the first Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia, one of the largest cities in the country. But my focus that day was not on big cities like Philadelphia—but rather on smaller cities that had not yet started down the road of leveraging data to spur innovation and inform better policy decisions.
In 2014, the delta between what large cities were doing with data and what small and mid-sized cities were doing was pretty stark.
Image courtesy of Flickr user antonymayfield. View license here.
I’ve had the opportunity recently to talk to people in several different city governments that are facing a common challenge — how to liberate operational data from a legacy system.
This is a challenge that lots of city governments face, and it strikes me that there are some common lessons that can be derived from cities that have gone down this road already for those that are still trying to figure out the right approach.
The following suggestions are crafted from my own experience as a municipal government official charged with making data more widely available, and those of people in similar positions that I’ve had a chance to speak with.
Late last year, I wrote a book devoted to civic hacking based on my experience working in state and local government, and inside civic tech communities.
It’s a book meant for public servants and people working inside government who want to connect with innovators and technologists outside of the bureaucracy. The premise is simple – governments need to find more effective ways of collaborating with members of their local civic tech communities:
Governments must develop strategies for engagement that can help direct the efforts of outside technology experts to issues or challenges that will have the broadest impact and the largest potential payoff. They will need to learn how to rally people with special talents to a particular cause or challenge, and then to turn those outside efforts into tangible outcomes for government agencies. They must learn to view the technology community as a potential talent pool from which they can draw a new generation of public servants who possess unique expertise in digital service creation.
It’s open source and available on Github. If you have a suggestion for how I can make it better, send a pull request or open a new issue.
We live in a time when people outside of government have better tools to build things with and extract insights from government data than governments themselves.
These tools are more plentiful, more powerful, more flexible, and less expensive than pretty much everything government employees currently have at their disposal. Governments may have exiting relationships with huge tech companies like Microsoft, IBM, Esri and others that have an array of different data tools — it doesn’t really matter.
In the race for better data tools, the general public isn‘t just beating out the public sector, its already won the race and is taking a Jenner-esque victory lap.
The title of “Chief Data Officer” – once an uncommon one in state and municipal governments – is becoming less uncommon. And that’s a very good thing for public sector innovation.
As recently as a few years ago, Chief Data Officers were found almost exclusively in big city governments like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Municipal governments provide services that touch citizens’ lives in more intimate ways than states or the federal government, and big cities have a critical mass of data that is attractive to the growing community of users with powerful tools for mapping and analyzing data. So it’s no surprise that cities have led the way in creating new, data-focused positions like CDOs, and in releasing open data to the public.
But increasingly, state governments and small to midsized cities are appointing Chief Data Officers, and creating new positions that focus almost exclusively on data. For example, earlier this year the City of Syracuse (a city of approximately 145,000 in Central New York) appointed it’s very first Chief Data Officer. It’s worth noting that this is not a stand alone position as in some other cities. The CDO position in Syracuse was deliberately made part of the city’s internal innovation team (which is funded through the Bloomberg Philanthropies iTeam program) and plays an integral part in the city’s efforts to use data internally to provide services more efficiently.