Challenges in Scaling Up Data-Driven Governance: O’Malley…Obama…Oh, Trump?

As the mayor of Baltimore and the governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley championed a data-driven approach to governance. He started with CitiStat, a tool that helped the Baltimore police department predict and prevent crime and became essential to every city department. Then as Governor he launched state-level tools such as BayStat, which helps mobilize various state agencies to protect the water of the Chesapeake Bay. I first learned about O’Malley in depth by watching this interview he did with Brookings.

After serving as a city councilor, mayor, and governor, in May 2015, he announced he was running for the Democratic nomination for president. For those who appreciated the evidence-based approach that he had brought to governing, it may have seemed like the right time to take CitiStat to the national stage. However, his campaign gained little traction, failed to raise enough money, and was suspended after getting only 0.6% of the vote in the Iowa Caucuses.

One interpretation of O’Malley’s failure this year could be that his voice was drowned out in a contest dominated by the ultimate competitive favorite in Hillary Clinton and the surprising, timely popular appeal of Bernie Sanders. On the other hand, it may also be true that the American people aren’t ready for a candidate whose primary differentiation is a set of talking points more at home in a graduate school classroom or a think tank discussion than a nationally televised debate.

However, where O’Malley failed in 2016, President Obama has quietly been making some gains since 2014. On August 9, the US Digital Service celebrated its second birthday. The US Digital Service and another office called 18F were born out of a hiring spree that Obama launched, gobbling up skilled technologists from the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon. There are now close to 200 former Silicon Valley employees working to update the technologies and processes used by various arms of the executive branch bureaucracy. This should be tremendously encouraging for those who believe that the private sector (or a perspective that comes from the private sector) has the best solution to many social problems and for those who wish to see government inefficiency reduced.

Another new feature of the federal government under Obama is the role of the Chief Information Officer. Its website says:

“By showcasing examples of innovation, identifying best practices, and providing a forum for Federal IT leaders, keeps the public informed about how our Government is working to close the technology gap between the private and public sectors.”

Speaking of best practices, released what it calls the Digital Services Playbook, whose table of contents you see above. It’s a set of guidelines for anyone at any level who is building digital services for government. Mike Sarasti, the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Miami, has tweeted about how useful he finds the playbook.

Nigel Jacob, a leader in the realm of civic technology, argues that we shouldn’t compare city-level innovation efforts with the federal-level programs of the Obama administration. He would prefer that we assess urban programs against one another, citing Bloomberg Philanthropies as one valuable source of urban innovation ideas. Pretty soon, we may have no choice but to heed his advice.

The future of the US Digital Service & co is up in the air after the election of Donald Trump. While Obama has a clear affinity for the technology industry, Trump doesn’t have a computer or use email, according to CNN. It could be that Trump will eliminate some of these digital programs out of simple opposition to Obama, or his administration could see the appeal in technological efficiency.

“We have people from different political stripes on the team,” said Rob Cook, commissioner of the Technology Transformation Service at the General Services Administration, which is home to 18F. “We don’t think technology is partisan.”

The Christian Science Monitor reported in September about the “anti-intellectualism” embodied by Trump and the history of similar populist politics. This strategy’s evident appeal could pose a challenge to the technocratic approach of the civic data scientist.

Matthew Wilson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University quoted as saying “People are pretty fed up with ‘experts’ these days.”

This sentiment seems to have hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign and may have held back Martin O’Malley as well. Polling data from Gallup show that Americans’ confidence in institutions has remained around its lowest level ever for several years. Notably, we have a 68% confidence in small business contrasted with an 18% confidence in big business. In a way, O’Malley was trying to bring a small business innovation into the big business of the federal government. It looks like we’ve got a lot more work to do selling the benefits of data-driven government.

The irony is that it’s the more evidence-driven approaches of CitiStat and New Urban Mechanics that have the best hope of displacing fake experts and unreliable pundits with real, actionable knowledge.

In an interview with the Washington Post this summer, Trump said he has never had to read very much because he can reach right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense.’ ”

Max Boot, a foreign policy expert quoted by the Monitor, says “Mr. Trump is as much as a symptom as a cause of the party’s anti-intellectual drift. The party needs to rethink its growing anti-intellectual bias and its reflexive aversion to elites.” I’d say we need to think about the reasons for this aversion to elites. If it’s because of the consolidation of power and wealth or a lack of critical thinking, then let’s keep being averse. If it’s because of a jealous desire to denigrate others who succeed, then we need to call it out. Wilson’s quote in the Monitor goes on: “The key to the argument is to attack not knowledge per se, but shallow, fashionable consensus masquerading as knowledge.”

There are a lot of remaining questions about the Trump administration and its approach to technology, data, and innovation. This list from the Sunlight Foundation is a good place to start.