Senator Kamala Harris would be a champion for government technology — particularly for state local governments across the US.
What evidence is there to support this claim? Let’s circle back to when Sen. Harris introduced the Digital Service Act of 2019 and caused govtech leaders in both the public and private sectors to turn their heads.
Despite the lack of mainstream press, the bill itself represents the most promising potential to usher in the next critical phase of United States government technology adoption — from local governments to Federal agencies.
Government Technology Today
Our current phase of government technology emerged during the Obama administration with the creation of the United States Digital Services. This federal agency, which is housed within the Executive Office of the President, was formed to be the nexus for Federal agencies to simplify and improve their digital services.
Many of the Federal government’s digital services had not changed much since the Clinton Administration in the 90’s when wide scale consumer adoption of the internet led to the initial digitization of the government’s paper and pencil analog services. This archaic, hodgepodge system of digital services was often disconnected, resulting in fragmented connectivity and use across agencies.
All of the problems of the last era in US government technology became blatantly clear to the public during the botched launch of Healthcare.gov. Recognizing technology was no longer an additive component to government services, but rather inextricably tied to its current operations and future progress, President Obama in 2014 established the US Digital Service.
For the first time, technology was front and center and in direct proximity to the power of the presidency. Mikey Dickerson, a former Google engineer, was brought in to head the agency, with the first mission being the recovery and improvement of Healthcare.gov.
In addition to forming the US Digital Service, the Obama Administration further elevated the importance of spurring innovation in the Federal government by developing the Chief Technology Officer of the United States position within the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Inaugural CTO Aneesh Chopra was tasked with working across the Federal agencies and with leading technology companies to apply cutting edge technologies in government, resulting in more data-driven decisions and enhanced services ranging from healthcare to criminal justice.
Senator Harris’ Bill
The formation of the US Digital Service under President Obama and continued under President Trump has resulted in greater integration of technologists and technology within the Federal government.
Senator Harris recognized that the current era of government technology and the work of the US Digital Service fell short in championing the adoption of technology beyond the Federal government.
Despite little Federal support, State and Local governments did not wait to begin centralizing their technology offices and elevating the power and responsibility offered to Chief Information Officers and Chief Technology Officers. In the 2010s we have even started to see the formation of Chief Innovation Officer positions in government — a position typically responsible for both managing government IT management and looking to adopt new ways to bring enhanced service delivery (sometimes related to technology and sometimes not).
With the release and announcement of The Digital Service Act of 2019, Senator Harris made it clear that a key role of the Federal government should be to support these localized efforts and to enable even greater technology adoption at the State and Local levels of government. “We must do more to empower our state and local governments to tap into the power of technology to provide seamless, cost-effective services for the 21st century.”
Her bill set forth $50 million to fund the continued operations of the US Digital Service. But it also went further by allocating $15 million per year to go to state and local governments looking to create similar technology and innovation teams as the Federal government had done over a decade ago. The $15 million would be offered in the form of two-year grants for amounts ranging from $200,000 to $2.5 million per year.
Interestingly, Sen. Harris’ approach to the grant funding focuses on both localized investment and cultivating local human capital capacity: Governments receiving grants would be required to take on 20% of costs and would need to spend over half of the funding on talent — not just technology purchases.
It is very unlikely that Sen. Harris’ bill will ever see the light of day. And, many in government technology will say $15 million is not enough. Both points are true. However, her bill does provide the public with the boldest and clearest (and perhaps only) vision for how the Federal government should evolve its technology and innovation priorities to include more resources to States and Local governments.
Why should technology leaders in government and the private sector care?
For governors, mayors, managers, CIOs and CTOs, the benefit is obvious: More funding to build or grow their technology talent on their teams and more resources to procure much needed technology solutions. Unsurprisingly, tech companies — from fledgling startups to Silicon Valley darlings — capture a large share of technical and non-technical talent by offering high wages and other perks. With additional talent-centric funding, local governments can attract more talent by offering civic purpose and more market-rate salaries. Combining new talent with increased funding for actual procurement positions State and Local governments with the possibility to innovate, resulting in improved government service delivery, economic growth and improved conditions for millions of residents.
For private sector companies that build and sell solutions for governments, the injection of funding will undoubtedly contribute to an uptick in government purchasing new technologies. The recent Local Government’s Next Normal study published by The Atlas showed that COVID-19 has catalyzed a dramatic trend for local governments to adopt new technologies at a rate not seen before. With additional resources, this movement can continue to gain momentum, resulting in increased sales for government technology companies and likely the formation of dozens of other new ventures to solve tomorrow’s government challenges. What’s more, increased number of tech-savvy government employees will lead to more folks in government advocating for more technology — a win-win.
There is a third benefit to having Sen. Harris as a champion of US government technology, which goes beyond funding: Closing the technology gap between the public and the leaders who represent us. At times, this separation can feel like a gaping chasm. Look no further than previous hearings between Congress and tech CEO’s like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Watching these cringeworthy debates can leave audiences feeling uneasy when it is clear that the leaders who represent us, do not use or have a strong grasp on the technologies that the majority of people in the US use everyday. And don’t even begin to have a conversation about cutting edge technologies in the fields of machine learning, bioinformatics, quantum computing — the combination of which will certainly shape our lives (and policies) of the not-too-distant future. And with the mounting debate on the potential regulation of ‘Big Tech monopolies’, wouldn’t we all sleep a little better at night if our representatives who were going to develop such groundbreaking policy had firsthand experience and knowledge inside the world of tech? I think so.
Senator Harris’ bill shows that the cultivation of government technology talent begins at more localized levels of government. And by investing in State and Local government technologies, we are much more likely to ignite a spark in current and future technologies to run for office — whether that is for a City Council seat or for the opportunity to become a Senator of the United States Congress.