Recently, Suffolk County New York was hit with a cyber attack that had a significant impact on its ability to use existing technology systems and interact with the public using the Internet. In a way, it’s easy to view this experience as a technology failure, and this article about the attack makes reference to some of the technical issues and the state of legacy systems in the county at the time of the attack.
But in my mind, this incident is less about technology and more about another issue that is critical to how governments use technology to serve those in need.
It’s about public budgeting.
We are going to revert to 1990. We are going to teach millennials what a fax machine was.Lisa Black, Chief Deputy County Executive
Faced with a quickly spreading cyberattack, Suffolk County officials decided to take down most of their online systems to prevent further damage. In the words of one official: “[w]e were just going to turn off the internet to further contain this.” As a result most of the basic functions of county government had to be done the old fashioned way – by hand, or using older technologies like fax machines.
Aside from being an extremely interesting case study in how deeply integrated the Internet and information technology systems are into the basic operations of local government, this experience also highlights something else. Something fundamental to how we fund technology projects in government.
It was a lesson learned, and a very expensive lesson. And we learned very quickly of the investment that we had to make in cybersecurity all along.Suffolk County Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr.
In short, technology systems get the funding they need when they break in public.
The experience of Suffolk County isn’t the only – or even the best – example of this phenomenon. There has been a whole lot written about the performance (or lack thereof) of government systems for Unemployment Insurance and other benefits during the pandemic. Many of these systems were old and suffered from chronic underinvestment. That they performed the way they did when the pandemic made them a primary vector for delivering relief to tens of millions of Americans isn’t really a shocker.
When spending public funds it makes sense to be judicious, and to guard against frivolous expenditures or premature optimization. But there has to be a better way to fund reasonable, needed spending on government technology systems than crisis-driven investment.
It also highlights the importance of the government budgeting process to technology modernization efforts, something that is still not widely appreciated in civic technology circles. It has never been more important for people in the civic tech community to understand the public budgeting process, to know the actors and the influencers, and have tactics for influencing budget outcomes, then it is right now.
Fixing how governments use technology to serve people requires us to understand how governments pay to build and support technology projects, and we need better tools in the civic tech toolbox for influencing spending outcomes.
18F has created some useful content, but it’s just a start. Much more is needed.