Government’s Innovation & Tech Problems

I spend a lot of time knocking tech companies and those who think technology will solve the world’s problems, but government doesn’t lack for my ire (see my post on Texas’ online job portals).

I’ve also spent a lot of my career in the nonprofit, political and governmental worlds. If there is one commonality among them when it comes to tech and change, it would be that they are slow to adopt and — sometimes — go backward more often than they make significant progress. I’ve worked in offices where people uninstalled the newest version of Word and replaced it with an older version — until they couldn’t anymore — because they wouldn’t adapt to a changed user interface. The Texas judicial system was still using WordPerfect until not all that long ago. Seriously.

I’ve spent years with my various employers advocating for blogs, calling for more intuitive websites, pointing out the virtues of social media in obtaining and disseminating information and otherwise trying to improve engagement using all appropriate communications tools. I’ve called for a national broadband infrastructure plan or other program that allows for nationwide world-class high-speed Internet access. I’ve pushed for better processes and better design.

One of the most basic yet most important changes I’ve advocated is a change in government recruitment, hiring and retention processes. As the U.S. military and some other government agencies have learned (or, at least, are learning), most of those interested in plying their tech and innovative skills in the public sector are not your typical soldier or government worker, though looking within the ranks is crucial in identifying organic/native innovators. Soldiers are great improvisers. Why can’t they be innovators? (Many troops and workers have never been taken seriously in their innovative ideas — you have to start asking and acting on the useful answers.) Innovators with institutional history and knowledge are as important assets as outside consultants.

State and local governments have to realize that a single “entrepreneur-in-residence” issuing unread white papers is only useful insofar as creating questions in the minds of those in the public who do read them, like: Why isn’t the city adopting such-and-such initiative? Cities and agencies need offices devoted to innovation — with purpose. Employees from across the organization need to be involved. There is no particular way to choose who is and who isn’t an innovator — until you start asking questions.

Despite manager’s and human resources’ beliefs, diverse résumés may be an overlooked qualification. Then, the least likely person may be the source of much enlightenment. Such people will be needed across organizations and in all levels of government. And they have to be able to communicate between organizations, unlike most existing government stovepipes. When hiring, searching for a particular skill set may not be as helpful as in most other hiring decisions. Giving a single pop icon of the entrepreneurial and/or tech worlds an office in city hall won’t ultimately help a city as much as an innovative (and, yes, engaged) workforce and citizenry. (But it is a cheaper PR move.)

Public or government innovation should not make it more difficult to accomplish a basic task than doing it on paper, and it shouldn’t be disparate — there must be consistency across organizations. I believe design can make truly positive differences in the practice of policymaking, our daily lives and the world. But we have to take a close look, as correctly as possible, at tech and government innovations to see the virtues and consequences of integrating them into the public sphere.

You may have noticed that I’m only slightly conflating those advocating for more technology in government with general innovators. Many innovations won’t need a new technology. Others won’t work without it. For some, the innovation may be jettisoning technology (however unlikely that is).

So, I’m not just bashing tech companies. Nor do I think it’s all government’s fault. I’m trying to bring them together — even if it is by pointing out their faults.

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