The Top 5 Government Tech Stories of 2013

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Disasters at HealthCare.gov and the possibility of major IT buying reform top the list.

This was the year government technology went mainstream.

After years of partisan rancor, it turned out that Obamacare, the largest expansion of government in decades, could be brought down more easily by software failures and a byzantine technology contracting system than by political and legal wrangling.

Meanwhile, the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov, the online federal health insurance marketplace at the core of Obamacare, lit a fire under Congress’ top technology leaders who vowed to reform the way the government buys and manages information technology in 2014.

End-of-year lists tend to be woefully incomplete. Notably, the list below does not include a cybersecurity retrospective. That was ably handled here by my colleague Aliya Sternstein. My list also focuses on the civilian side of government technology rather than military.

With those provisos in hand, here’s my list of the top government technology stories of 2013.

1. Two months of disaster for HealthCare.gov

Large-scale, multi-year technology projects have a well-documented history of inefficiency and poor performance that’s cost the government billions of dollars and troubled White House officials and congressional overseers for years.

This was a niche story largely ignored by major media and unknown to the public until October, when more than 400 software glitches, insufficient storage space and a convoluted management structure made HealthCare.gov virtually unusable upon launch and kept millions of Americans from purchasing the new, affordable insurance policies they were promised.

HealthCare.gov appears to be operating efficiently after repairs but enrollment remains far lower than White House officials had hoped and it’s not clear whether enough Americans will join the new insurance marketplaces to make the program sustainable.

Whether Obamacare survives in the form currently envisioned or not, government officials will never again take the technological components of major programs for granted, and the media and public's awareness of government technology is sure to rise.

2. Faltering steps toward IT reform

Legislation to reform how the government buys and builds information technology didn’t make it into law in 2013, but public attention on HealthCare.gov’s troubled launch increased the likelihood such legislation will pass in 2014, officials said.

The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act has already passed a House Committee and similar legislation was introduced in the Senate in December. Both bills would increase the power of agency chief information officers, with the goal of making them more accountable for IT failures. The House bill would go farther in fundamentally reforming how the process for buying federal technology works.

Whether Republicans and Democrats can work with each other and with the White House to improve government technology spending in 2014 will be a major test of bipartisanship and of government’s ability to launch major programs like Obamacare in the future.

3. Opening up government data

The White House published an open data policy in May requiring federal agencies to collect and publish new information in open, machine-readable and, whenever possible, non-proprietary formats.

If fully implemented, the policy will make it vastly easier for watchdogs to analyze and display data collected by the government. It will also make it easier for companies and entrepreneurs to commoditize that data by launching mobile apps and other products that help citizens find the most affordable homes, the best hospitals and the safest products among other things.

Also in 2013, government agencies launched several hundred application programming interfaces, or APIs, which stream data directly from government servers to outside computers. And the government launched an updated version of its universal data trove Data.gov.

Not all the government open data news was good however. Notably an independent review found the U.S. had only met about half its commitments to an international transparency body, despite claiming it had completed 24 of the 26 commitments. Where the government has fallen short on open data has typically been where it matters most to the public -- in honoring Freedom of Information Act requests from media organizations and citizens.

The test for the remainder of the Obama administration will be whether truly open government data becomes the new norm or open data becomes a catchphrase generally honored when there’s no downside.

4. The move to commercial and open source alternatives

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced in December it’s seeking a commercial alternative for the system it uses to notify the public about emergencies through traditional broadcast media and Internet and cellphone alerts.

FEMA said its current custom-built system is dogged by glitches and bureaucracy that can cost lives during a disaster.

Meanwhile, numerous agencies are moving to open source software systems, which means the software’s basic building blocks are in the public domain and not dependent on proprietary systems owned by specific vendors.

While these two trends are often in tension, both suggest the government is looking to outsource more of its software building and to get away from custom-built systems that can quickly become out of date and expensive to improve.

5. Government social media grows up

The story of government and social media became vastly more complicated in 2013.

A new slate of agencies announced plans to monitor social media, both to gather intelligence and to track the effectiveness of their own programs. The White House OK'd such monitoring programs in July, provided agencies are transparent about it.

And all of this happened against the backdrop of revelations by leaker Edward Snowden, beginning in June, about vast National Security Agency monitoring programs that scoop up information from some Americans’ social media profiles as well as from other computer and cellphone data.

Meanwhile, social media helped local and federal officials transmit information rapidly during the Boston Marathon bombings but proved troublesome for investigators and officials when false rumors spread rapidly on social media following the attack.

Social media became an advertising venue for agencies, with the Veterans Affairs department’s commitment of $3 million to Facebook ads to alert veterans to benefits they may not be collecting and a Justice Department plan to spend $550,000 to recruit top legal talent on LinkedIn.

Agencies also diversified their social media offerings in 2013, branching out from the mainstays of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn.

The U.S. Geological Survey even launched a profile on the lyrics-decoding site Rap Genius where visitors can socially annotate its publications.

The General Services Administration is working on developing federal-friendly terms of service with Rap Genius, so there could be many more federal profiles there in 2014. Maybe then we’ll all be feelin’ good.

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