Digital in the Next Administration: The Path Forward

(Disclosure: in my personal capacity, I serve a volunteer role with the Clinton campaign as the co-chair of a policy advisory group. Code for America is non-partisan and non-political and takes no position on candidates.)

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton revealed her technology & innovation agenda. Among her positions is the continuation and expansion of the United States Digital Service, an office that I helped start during my term as Deputy CTO at the White House. This is a good moment for those who care about government working for the people. The Presidential candidate with the lead in the polls is also the candidate making a commitment to invest in the people and practices we need to make government technology serve the American public as it should.

If Clinton wins, what will she and her team face? Will she have her “healthcare.gov moment,” when policies and reforms that she’s put all her political capital behind face near-deadly implementation risk? Will she staff the West Wing with advisors who know how to work with the Mikey Dickersons, Haley Van Dycks, and Todd Parks of the world, or even better, will she seat people like Mikey and Haley there at the table for the most important discussions? How will she lead her cabinet on digital? Or will she choose people who can help lead each other? How will her team lead the President’s Management Council, made up of the Deputy Secretaries (the COOs of the agencies), the ones who struggle most with impact of outdated approaches to technology? If she wins, how could President Hillary Clinton change the culture of government to work better in a digital era?

Technology in Government Today

It’s worth starting with the current state of that culture. The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) and ICF International released a Federal Leaders Digital Insight Study this February, an update to an initial study the previous year. The authors surveyed a random sample of 10,000 federal leaders and conducted focus groups to provide context about how these leaders think about the challenge of technology in government. If the study is representative, it’s a decent snapshot of the base the next administration will be building on, and the distance we still have to go before the federal government is working as it should using technology.

Overall, federal leaders basically get it. From the study: “More than 90 percent of federal leaders — essentially unchanged from last year — believe that digital technology allows them to better serve stakeholders and do their own jobs more effectively.” One wonders about that ten percent, especially since this is the one number in the study that didn’t move since last year, but still…not bad. Moving on, feds saying “yes” when asked whether their agency’s productivity had increased due to the use of digital technology went up 10% over the previous year, from 62% to 72%.

The answers to other similar questions all went up from the previous year, with the highest jump in agreement with the statement: “if my agency improved my access to information through digital technology, I would be more productive at achieving agency goals.” It’s a bit odd that the statement assumes it’s someone else’s job to improve a leader’s access to information rather than the job of the leader to build capability to achieve it (who at the agency would be doing this?) but still, this is pretty good news.

It’s the next section of the report where the next President is going to have some challenges. NAPA asked respondents about the “internal or external barriers that your agency has encountered when attempting to implement digital technology,” and the winner by a 9 point spread was — you guessed it — insufficient budgets. There is some limited truth in this assertion, in the sense that budgets are often specifically earmarked for the wrong things, but at close to $90B, there’s something awry when federal leaders think budget is a bigger barrier than slow acquisition procedures (3rd at 40%) or lack of employees with digital skills (5th at 32%).

It’s easy to find oneself in the mud when talking about these issues, but if I may stoop for a minute: $336,000 for a random number generator. $1.5B for electronic healthcare records. $2B for healthcare.gov. These are not small numbers. And the point is that if insufficient budget were the problem, then larger budgets would correlate with higher success. But the opposite is true. Bigger budgets for federal IT projects correlate with a particular approach: extensive requirements gathering followed by an enormously detailed RFP for a multi-year waterfall project handled by a traditional systems integrator. And this approach is highly correlated with both outright project failure and the kinds of software that no one likes using, neither public servants nor the public.

Building and Buying Technology in the 21st Century

Budgets certainly are a problem when it comes to tech in government, but the fix isn’t to make them bigger, it’s to make them different. We need to be able to let projects start small and iterate based on real user needs (not to be confused with requirements!), and we need budgeting, oversight, and contracting mechanisms that allow for that process, and then kick in ongoing funds only as the project proves itself. We need to pay commodity prices for commodities, like cloud computing, and take much broader advantage of platforms like cloud.gov that make the cloud government-compliant.

And we need to invest in the modernization of legacy systems that our public-facing digital services and open data programs rely on. Technology has come a long way since we originally put government into bits and bytes. As one respondent in the NAPA survey observed, “A lot of the old legacy systems cost billions of dollars to maintain. There should be a way to do it far cheaper. That’s got to be the ultimate goal.”

More to the point, we need leaders in federal government who ask for the air cover to take an agile, user-centered approach to tech. The next President will inherit a federal workforce that doesn’t have enough of those leaders. It also doesn’t have enough leaders who understand how to put tech, policy and operations together under an agile, user-centered framework.

The smallest change in the NAPA study, up just 5% from last year’s number, had to do with the impact of tech on government operations. Only 66% of respondents agreed with this statement: “My agency’s investment in and implementation of digital technology has transformed and improved normal workflow, operations, and processes.” And only 3% of federal leaders believe that their agency invests in digital technology to completely reimagine existing processes, while 39% of respondents said their agency used tech to automate existing business processes. It’s important to note that these questions speak to what those surveyed thought their agencies had done, not what they respondents themselves believed should be done, but it’s still indicative of where the culture stands.

A change in administration is always a chance to bring in new leadership, but we lose good people that way too. And of course, new people are no silver bullet. Yes, the next President will likely recruit some impressive folks from what Todd Park calls “metaphysical Silicon Valley” to help continue the changes President Obama set in motion, changes I’m proud to have played a part in. But I hope the next President also sees the value in the current workforce, and the chance to make 21st century government leaders out of the people s/he will inherit.

It’s true that not enough agency CIOs and Deputy Secretaries are pushing for different instead of more, but the changes kicked off under Obama and the era of the USDS are still so nascent! I spoke at a conference for federal agency tech buyers in DC last month. Out of over a hundred in the audience, only three hands went up when I asked who was familiar with the CIO Playbook. The work of spreading the practices, changing incentives, and most importantly, inspiring smart, well-intentioned public servants about the power and possibility of a different approach to technology has only begun. In too many corners of government (including state and local), we have great team players playing by the rules of previous eras, but it’s the job of leadership to change those rules. And it starts at the top.

Good Governance is Inextricably Linked to the Digital

Ultimately, no President has ever run on a platform of technology procurement reform or even digital transformation. Presidents get elected because people think they can govern. (Or at least I hope that’s their criteria!) And governing well, like everything else in this world that’s being eaten by software, is a bit different in 2016 than it was 10, 20 or 50 years ago. The lesson I really hope our next President learns from the Obama administration is the one I saw senior leaders in the West Wing start to understand as they worked more and more closely with the folks from what became the United States Digital Service: that human-centered software development is a path back to our roots, to governing for, with, and by the American people. As I said at the kick off to the Code for America Summit last year, paraphrasing Domestic Policy Council head Cecilia Munoz, “Starting with users isn’t just how we should be making technology; it’s how we should be making government.”

Our friend Tom Steinberg said it another way “You can no longer run a country properly if the elites don’t understand technology in the same way they grasp economics or ideology or propaganda.…What good governance and the good society look like is now inextricably linked to an understanding of the digital.” This doesn’t mean we need our President to be a programmer. It does mean that we need the kind of thinking that Clinton’s team outlined yesterday, and the follow through to go with it.

Tech and design for government isn’t an issue per se. But it’s a critical way we address pretty much every other priority issue, including the fundamental one: the trust and faith of the American public. It will take several more administrations for the changes we’ve seen in the past few years to become the new normal, which is why it’s so important we double down on that work right away.