Intentional Government Technology, Not Catch-up

Public policy options are never right or wrong, they’re informed by values and are political decisions. As such, the fact that no political party has bothered to make technology policy a core part of its platform continues to astound me because it presents an opportunity to exert values in the technology space. A set of values that is different than the ones that chase disruption and resilience, a set of values that could be used to adjust and iterate on what we have that’s already working well in government.

But let’s step back a minute and consider what happens when leadership doesn’t exert itself in the technology space. What happens is that we get thinking like the piece recently published by Sunil Johal of the Mowat Centre advocating for a thoroughly neoliberal take on government tech and one that frames that future as inevitable. Which is fine — it’s a valid take based on the economic and political context that we currently sit in. But it’s not the only possible take, and I’d like to offer a few other ways of thinking. And hear yours if you have any.

The notion that residents should be expecting Amazon or Netflix style services from government is a fallacy. Most of what government does won’t end up with an app or a website. Government delivers critical public services and should be the one prioritizing its technology approach based on its needs and requirements, not the options currently making headlines in the tech press nor the expectations of people as digital consumers. People generally interact with tech in a capitalist way and that is not a reason to make it the default way.

What this means is that government needs to find the confidence to prioritize technology investments that most people will never see. The boring news is that government can and will do many things with different, and possibly open, technology. Blockchain and AI aren’t the priority right now. They matter, but they’re not first in line. The laws, policies, and organizational structure that define how data and digital infrastructure will be managed are. Without linear thinking on this, laws, policies, and structures first, tech second, we are going to run headway into big problems. We’re on that path now.

If people are so hungry to think about tech moonshots (cringe), imagine the power of organizing government data and information and people around problems rather than ministries and divisions. The power of technology, older technology, has yet to be brought into full force upon government operations and this is not a step to skip. It may unleash profound improvements that have no equivalent in private sector technology markets. The government has use cases that no one, absolutely no one else, has to wrangle. Figuring this out will require people.

As for waste or efficiencies in government, the waste I know about lies in two places: communications and technology spending. After that I’ll need others to weigh in. But in any discussion about automating administrative functions within government the same thinking must, absolutely must, prioritize the involvement of humans in the development and oversight of the work.

If efficiencies can be found in administrative places it takes a mature technology policy informed by a distinct set of values to look around and think about how to best reinvest monies saved. This is why the word transformation makes sense. This kind of tech policy will need immense care so that tech savings don’t become another way to cut budgets rather than reinvesting savings in government and giving directly to people that need the money most.

Photo from the Regina Museum. An exhibit on technology and capitalism that made me think about the cultural impact of our curators and wonder whether the exhibit would even happen today. Go if you’re there.

We are in a place where the values of the current and recent political leaders informed decisions to bet hard on privatizing government technology. As such, we’ve reduced capacity internally to support technology and continued to privatize. And when this goes wrong, no one can distinguish between the government and their vendors and so general distrust in government tech continues. In the case of Phoenix, As Matthew MacLeod, President of The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada’s Research Group puts it: “to blame the public sector for botching Phoenix when the requirement drafting and product itself were pushed to be outsourced by the political level is disingenuous.”

In a time where stable and decent work is becoming increasingly hard to find, the public sector presents an opportunity to keep and raise the bar. Rather than consider public servants as people who are unjustly well paid with stable jobs, look to the importance of the roles they hold and how the sector, and its unions, can play a role in creating and supporting good technology work. Yes, collective agreements will force this to be a difficult negotiation about how public sector work evolves, but that’s good — it should be.

Government technology does not have to mean all things built in-house at all times. This isn’t the plan. But it can be an opportunity to think about strategic open source software and how to use private sector contracts as a way to train up internally and co-create with vendors. There are so many small and medium enterprises to support in this work. I’ve gone down this road before. And kill the myth that all the best tech people flock to the highest-paying jobs. Yes, some, but far from all. Saying this is an insult to the smart technologists in government and affront to those that work in the many low-pay low-support tech jobs.

Business, and particularly big global tech players, develop tech for a different set of scenarios than government. I say this time and time again — with the track record that most of the private sector currently has in selling tech to government I cannot believe, simply cannot fathom, that anyone wants to increase the share of public funds that flow that way.

I want our government to rebuild its tech capacity. I want our government to employ people, with decent work, to do it. I want us all to understand that the people that build government tech are the ingredient that will make it good and thoughtful and ethical. This model requires leadership and values that can imagine government leading and defining not racing to catch up with something that it never can be nor should be: the private sector.