Can Programmers Change the Government?

There will come a day when “FedEx Sends Package via Space” will blow up our augmented reality lenses. But which entity will achieve such a feat: Private or public?

Which would you bet on: SpaceX or NASA?

Over 50 years ago, NASA was cemented across 10 distributed centers nationwide. Compared to nimble startups like SpaceX–where engineering, design and development is central—building rockets at NASA is relatively less efficient. SpaceX invites the exciting possibility for low-cost access to space, and it’s why some NASA employees are actually rooting for SpaceX to succeed.

“In theory, NASA could then turn its attention to riskier space exploration goals where there may be no adequate return on investment for a private company,” says NASA’s Jason Hutt.

Notorious for long list of regulations and layers of management, NASA–along with all other hundreds of US federal agencies–are trapped by antiquated processes that are too massive to change. If the goal of the government is to better serve the public, the relationship between public and private has to be symbiotic. 

From the US department of motor vehicles to human services, federal agencies have been oil to innovation’s water. But over the last few years, there’s been a stronger demand for innovation in the government. Never has there been a bigger emphasis on improving technology as there has been in the White House today. Whether by partnering with stealthy startups or establishing strong in-house engineering teams, this could be the transformational period you read about in history books. Software engineers could be the cornerstone in revolutionizing the government for the greater good.

The Demand for Change Now

It’s crazy to think that landing a government job was once considered a massive badge of honor. The stability…the longevity…the pension. These are all ideal relics of the past. With the rise of the technology revolution, new grads’ interest in working for the government has unsurprisingly been declining over the past four years. Of roughly 46,000 undergraduates polled in late 2013 and early 2014, just 2.4% of engineering students listed government employers as their ideal places to work.

But, new grads should consider this outlook:

“The greatest threat to humanity is government’s incompetency.” – Sam Altman, president of YCombinator at 2015 TechCrunch Disrupt.

In these 8 words, Altman declares a significant predicament that’s surfacing in the halls of tech conferences across the country (here, here and here). People in Silicon Valley are disrupting whole industries at uncharted rates, building billion dollar companies in just a few years. Meanwhile, the government has been trailing decades behind. This begs the question: How much is technology helping the general public?

The biggest catalyst for this realization was undoubtedly the Healthcare.gov disaster of 2013. When the Affordable Care Act federal insurance exchange website went live, it virtually failed when millions of Americans attempted to sign up. The whole website went down and came back with frustrating glitches and ridiculous load times. It highlighted the truck loads of government dollars wasted on malfunctioning technology and signified the incompetency of the government.

Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 12.11.23 PM

sources: [1], [2], [3], [4]

Granted, the complexity of its massive infrastructure that handles sensitive, regulated information is incomparable to building an average website. Still, the lack of efficiency is undeniable.

But this mishap propelled progress. Since this embarrassing negligence, not only has the White House publically recognized the problem but also:

  • Appointed the first ever Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil to help make data more accessible, with a focus on healthcare. He’s spearheaded Data.gov, which made 130,000 datasets available to the public. Notably, he’s pioneering something called “precision medicine,” which looks at personal health data to predict diseases.

Patil is often pressed about why he left his cushy throne in Silicon Valley, where he had influential positions at eBay and LinkedIn:

“There’s something exceptional when meeting at the government and the White House. You’re sitting where WWI and WWII and The Marshal Plan was made and implemented. Every single moment of every day, you’re creating history when you’re there. You have the ability to change the world. There is no other meeting…this is the meeting where decisions are made.” – Patil says.

  • The Obama Innovation Fellowship is now permanent. In this program, about a hundred “entrepreneurs-in-residence,” or technologists, from Silicon Valley observe and infuse innovation in the public sector.  
  • There’s now a “Department of Better Technology” that was established in 2013, founded by Clay Johnson (who ran Obama’s website). So far, they’ve produced Screendoor, an online form app…among several other products…for nonprofit and government purposes.
  • There’s now a Social & Behavioral Sciences Team that’s making tweaks in governmental processes using A/B testing methods to boost efficiency.

It’s amazing that even simple changes, like replacing reminder mail with text messages, has the potential to change thousands of people’s lives. For instance, researchers sent one group of randomly chosen students a text message reminding them of the next steps for college enrollment. “A full 68 percent subsequently enrolled in college, compared with 65 percent among those who didn’t get any reminders,” the New York Times reports. So, a mere series of text messages–that cost just $7 dollars per student–helped put more students on the path to college.

There’s so much low-hanging fruit that can make a significant difference at low-cost.

Another example is the bane of every government employee and citizen: Paperwork. It takes an average of 2 weeks to process a single form and 9 billion hours are spent processing forms a year. Talk about government waste. This is coming from SeamlessDoc, a startup that aims to virtualize forms.

SeamlessDoc is a reason to be optimistic. It’s a product of GovTech Fund, the very first venture capital firm exclusively for government startups. With $23 million in funding, startups like SeamlessDocs are saving millions by digitizing government forms.

“In the next five to 10 years, you’re going to see a wave of capital coming to the space,” Managing partner Ron Bouganim said. “From the Govtech perspective, we’re building an ecosystem.”

The Irony of Archaic Government Software

As you can see, there are glimmers of light shining down on the darkness of archaic governmental inefficiencies. Startups can get US government contracts–like that of SpaceX–but there’s a lot of ambiguity and frustration in the process of even applying.

If you want to carry out a contract for the government, behold…here’s the screen you’d have to navigate:

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Sam.gov is both the symptom and cause of the sluggishness of innovation in the US government.

Johnson points out that it cost $200 million so far to make–hard to believe considering it’s reminiscent of the days of Dial Up Internet.

It all comes down to the way the government hires programmers to create this software. It’s ironic– If you want to come in and build software for the government, you have to use the government’s existing crappy software. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of anti-innovation. Anyone with the drive and ambition to fix these sites would have no patience to navigate through the initial website. Johnson gives us the bitter taste:

“They’d issue a request for proposal of 30 pages long, which requires you to register on  Sam.gov. You have to guarantee you’re not a terrorist. California makes you guarantee
that you don’t own any slaves. The first field at Sam.gov is ‘what’s your Duns number?’ It’s a proprietary number owned by Dun & Bradstreet. You have to apply for a Duns
number, which takes 1-2 business days.”

And this is just the first question.

“If you’re a young startup company and you make websites, and you want to make a government website, you have to come to this website. This regulatory environment is so huge and requires a real skill to understand that the people who win the contracts are people who often times understand the regulations the best–not the people who understand the technology the best,” Johnson says.

Johnson goes on to make a fair point: It’s not necessarily that the companies who built Healthcare.gov and other government technology do shoddy work, it’s that the frustrating environment makes it impossible to do your best work. There are reports of Johnson’s company “Department of Better Technology” aiming to fix the bidding process with Procure.io, but the URL has since then redirected to the ScreenDoor, another online form product.

The New Frontier Must Be a Tandem Effort

While the administration has certainly taken great strides with the appointment of Silicon Valley veterans since the Healthcare.gov gaffe of 2013, the root of the problem is clear. The barrier between projects or job opportunities and the best software engineers is massive–to the point of absurd. 

The government needs to revamp the way they hire programmers to build software.

Likewise, software engineers should change their vantage point from the government as a sluggish beast to an opportunity for true change. It’ll take both ambitious software engineers with patience to break through the system and a more progressive government to loosen the friction between innovation and public service to create a better life for the average person. The most forward-thinking tech moguls, like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, dreamt of space travel as kids. It’s why they’re devoting a slice of their fortune to working in tandem with NASA to send tourists to Mars.

What if this mentality permeated across gov agencies? What if we had innovative startups competing for government partnerships to fix the DMV, food stamps and services for the homeless?  It might not be as glamorous as space exploration, but it could improve the lives of millions on Earth.

 

 

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3 Replies to “Can Programmers Change the Government?”

  1. Hi Ritika. Really awesome article. You’ve primarily concentrated on U.S. government. Do you have any thoughts to what It might take to solve problems like these in country like India? Where a simple process as getting a government ID requires a complex sets of documents. How do you think programmers in India can be motivated to solve these kind of problems?

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