Wanted: Tech Superstars to Drive Government Innovation


Change makers who bridge the gap between technology and governance are crucial to the future of civic engagement and service delivery.

Latanya Sweeney is professor of government and technology in residence at Harvard University and former chief technology officer at the Federal Trade Commission. Dan Tangherlini is the former administrator of the General Services Administration.

As the first decade of the smartphone comes to a close, it makes sense to pause and think about what has changed, what has not, and what the mismatch means.

While ubiquitous, intuitive technology has disrupted many industries and processes (when was the last time you used a paper map?) government lags in adoption and transformation, and the lag threatens its effectiveness.

However, there are signs of progress and hope. What is needed more than any other ingredient is the talent to make the changes necessary to ensure our civic world is as tech-enabled as our private economy.

We have unique views of what it takes to infuse technical know-how and innovation into what can often be stolid, stodgy government programs. In leadership positions at the Federal Trade Commission and the General Services Administration, we worked to build the technical capacity of our government to harness innovation in many of the same ways as the best in the private sector, and to invent technological tools specific to government’s unique functions.

As we have transitioned out of government into academia and the private sector, the needs for growing a public interest technology field has only become more clear and our view on the need for change, more urgent.

From our shared experience in the federal government, we know that having talented technologists who can help drive change and bridge the gap between technology and governance could not be more important for the future of civic engagement and service delivery.

A recent report by a group of five major foundations, who joined together to form the NetGain partnership, shows what steps can be taken to build a cadre of such “public interest technologists” throughout government and civil society.

To be sure, HealthCare.gov's rocky rollout and the backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs have done little to instill confidence. But lately the government has been quietly creating technology success stories, a few of which we were directly involved with.

For instance:

  • 18F, a digital services agency in GSA, recruited a corps of top-notch technologists who build technological innovations and tools throughout the federal government, such as the College Scorecard, to help prospective students navigate Department of Education data.
  • The Technology Fellows program at FTC recruits leading technology students and scholars to work in-house at FTC for a summer, or a year or two.
  • FTC’s interactive websites provide unique opportunities for consumer education and involvement, for example through resources like IdentityTheft.gov, allowing people to both report and recover from identity theft using one online source.
  • And as an example from civil society, the nongovernmental organization Humanitarian Tracker is using crowdsourced reports to get a better understanding of when and where violence is happening in places such as Syria.

To enable further achievements, the new NetGain report, "A Pivotal Moment: Developing a New Generation of Technologists for the Public Interest," identifies interventions that would help increase the number of people with technology skills working in government. Widespread adoption of these interventions can make recent successes the start of a movement rather than one-off examples.

The solutions listed in the report provide a full spectrum of possible actions, from childhood to mid-career. For example, equipping more students in our K-12 systems with technology skills would mean a stronger future pool of applicants for technology jobs in the public interest.

For seasoned technology professionals in their mid-career, we can build systems that enable them to have a “tour of service” in government agencies and civil society, creating an immediate impact on technological capability.     

Two particularly important findings of the new NetGain report resonated with us. First, we strongly believe in the valuable role leadership plays to infuse technology and innovative thinking into the workplace. At FTC and GSA, we found it was important to ensure the entire organization is ready and willing to support change and disruption. This willingness is the direct result of engagement and support from leadership.

Second, we agree that everyone must find and embrace ways to diversify technology talent working for the public interest (as well as diversify technology talent across sectors). Technologists are building the tools for government to engage with modern problems. In order to create solutions that are applicable to the populations that use them, technologists must represent every community.

Concrete steps ranging from scholarships to mentorships can help ensure a robust and diverse field of public interest technologists in the years to come, but we must prioritize these types of actions in order to achieve real progress.

We stand at a pivotal moment for how government interacts with, regulates and harnesses technological innovation. Technology has the power to make our government far more efficient and effective for citizens. Just imagine if every government website were as intuitive, useful and easy to use as those we use every day for social media or e-commerce.

As more personal information moves online, tech-savvy government workers will also be better equipped to protect Americans’ rights. We need people with more technology exposure, skills and experience to help make decisions about increasingly utilized and controversial technology such as body-worn police cameras or facial recognition tools. We need government technologists to develop their own innovations for government functions in cases where commercial remedies do not exist.

Engaging with and using technology is no longer optional for average citizens, and the same applies to our government. Now is the time to take the steps necessary to create an expanding talent pool of public interest technologists who can truly move government and civil society into the 21st century.

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