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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Correctable job for government technology

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is the collection past columns

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

Computer systems sometimes run software from the Sputnik era. The Pentagon’s military hardware modernization project has little to show in five years. During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans struggled to get government assistance, such as unemployment insurance, vaccination appointments, and food stamps, due to red tape, technology inflexibility and other concerns.

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

Carnahan, a former Missouri secretary of state and government technical advisor, has been one of my guides on how public sector technology can work better. Then, in June, she was approved as an administrator for the Office of General Services, the agency that oversees government procurement, including technology.

Carnahan said she and other Biden administration officials wanted the technology used to wage wars or tax filing to be as effective as our favorite app.

“Bad technology refutes good politics,” Carnahan told me. “Our mission is to make government technology more user-friendly and smarter in the way we buy and use it.”

Carnahan highlighted three areas she would like to tackle: First, change the way government agencies buy technology to recognize that technology requires constant updates. Second, simplify technology for people using government services. And third, make it more attractive for people with technical expertise to work for the government, even temporarily.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. The people in the government have promised similar changes before, and this is not a quick fix. Technology dysfunction is also often a sign of poor policy.

But, according to Carnahan, one way to build confidence in government is to prove it can be competent. And technology is an important area to show that.

Developing this competence starts with something very boring – budgeting and purchasing. Carnahan told me last year that governments usually fund digital infrastructure the same way they did bridges. They buy it once and try not to think about it for the next several decades. This mentality is incompatible with technology that works best with continuous improvement and service.

Carnahan said she was trying to spread the message to Congress and government agencies that predictable government funding over time is the best approach to buying technology. Carnahan said the government should think about technologies like Lego sets, with parts that are regularly changed or refurbished. (Hey, my metaphors work.)

She also hopes to use technology to help alleviate the headaches that make it difficult for people to access public services.

As one example, Karnahan mentioned that she wanted to significantly expand the number of government services available through login.gov. There, people can create a single digital account to interact with multiple services, such as applying for jobs in government or applying for disaster relief for small businesses.

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And like many people in government, Karnahan also invites people with technical expertise to work in the public sector. Its appeal is partly pragmatism and partly patriotism. “Government is the single best way to influence people’s lives,” Carnahan said.

She said teleworking has also made government jobs more realistic for people who don’t want to relocate to Washington, and so they have programs like the US Digital Service and the new US Digital Corps that allow technologists to work alongside government officials for a short time. … …

Carnahan makes no claim that it will be easy to reverse decades of relative dysfunction in state technology. But she believes it’s critical 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 applying to Medicare.

“Making the damn websites work is the fundamental thing people expect from government these days,” she said.


  • How do we keep kids safe online? US law more or less prohibits the use of Internet services by users under the age of 13. My colleagues at the New York Times Opinion spoke with young children who are online despite the restrictions and argued that the US is learning from the new guidelines for protecting children in Britain.

    (The Opinion Today newsletter has a backstory about these smart kids. You can subscribe here.)

  • A hammer falls on spyware: Apple is suing NSO Group, an Israeli company whose software has been used by governments to spy on the smartphones of human rights defenders, journalists and dissidents. My colleague Nicole Perlroth writes that the lawsuit and the recent blacklisting of the NSO by the US government could be steps towards increasing oversight of the global spyware market.

  • Thoughtful gift ideas! Brian X. Chen, Consumer Technology Columnist for The Times, offers great ideas for New Year’s gifts that are tech-related but not gadget-related. (I bet Brian’s wife will love her digital photography lesson. Don’t spoil the surprise.)

I’m obsessed with a NASA spacecraft that was launched today with the goal of crashing into an asteroid the size of a sports stadium to knock it off course. Yes, this is a bit like the plot of the movie “Armageddon”.


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