Before going into the details, let me first couch myself in saying: I really like Steve VanRoekel. I think he was the glue that held together the FCC's New Media endeavors, I think, after meeting with him and talking with him on several occasions, that he's really smart, and I'm really excited that he's the federal CIO. In his first talk in that position, VanRoekel gave an outline of his agenda, the Future First Initiative and I think, all in all it's great stuff and good thinking.
But there's one eensy part of the talk that nudged me the wrong way. And it's something that we hear a lot coming out of the government, and out of silicon valley -- this concept that government should behave more like a silicon valley startup. It's not our CIO saying that, either. It's a consistent meme running across the techno-elites at the intersection of government and technology.
This meme -- like it's older sibling "government should be run like a business" -- is a particularly attractive one because it helps to simplify how government works, and make it into something that we can identify with. Who in Silicon Valley wouldn't want to hear that government wants to behave more like them? It's an honor! It's also attractive because it's filled with the great emotional stories of innovation and success and of the take-no-prisoners, change the world stuff of the late Steve Jobs and the rest of the innovators. After all, the United States government put a man on the moon, unleashed the power of the atom, sponsored that nifty Siri on your iPhone, and yes, developed this platform you're reading these words on called "the Internet." So it's not like government's innovation, especially in the IT sector isn't sewn into the DNA of every startup coming out of Silicon Valley (whether they like it or not).
The metaphor of the startup can be appropriate sometimes, I think it's time for us to move beyond the vague "startup" concept into more specific changes in policy. While a startup's agility is a great, romantic notion, it's a distraction from what our current problem with IT is inside of the federal government: a lack of ability to critically think about technology. Specifically, I think this breaks down into three things that need to get fixed.
First, there's culture. You have contractors who want to deploy "enterprise grade" software that costs tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars for the government. Because of the way the human brain works, bureaucrats think they're saving the taxpayer money when they take a 50 Million Dollar proposal and knocking it down to 20 Million Dollars, but more often than not -- especially when it comes to the web, that same project could cost less than a million dollars for anyone in the public to develop. For instance, that Recovery.gov's website budget alone is more than three times larger than the annual budget of the Sunlight Foundation -- the leading and one of the larger organizations focused on transparency at the Federal level.
Part of the reason why that budget got to be so large is because the Recovery and Transparency Board hired contractors to write the RFP, who are part of this same culture of enterprise as the people building the software, and thus they asked for a bunch of things they didn't need. Read the original RFP, and you'll see. Ask your favorite web developer if they've ever set up an XML Firewall, or have any experience with "Enterprise Data Cubing."
Regulation is another big issue. Because procurement is such a headache, and often adds between 8 and 18 months just to get a contract in place on top of development time, in the world of technology, this means that government is forced to live a cycle behind on Moore's Law, something I spoke about at Code for America a few weeks ago. We need for procurement rules to change so that government can get better access to people and talent, and so that the gap between what kind of technology people expect and what government can provide (what VanRoekel calls 'the Productivity gap' but I think is more of an expectations gap) starts closing. We have a system designed to prevent fraud, and mitigate failure, and what that does is give government yesterday's technology at tomorrow's prices.
A third, and I think often overlooked reason why government cannot think critically about technology is that it does not participate, socially, online in the same way that everybody else does. As I mentioned in my post about tools for brainstorming and dialog if government wants access to expertise, the best way to do that is not to use or develop new systems to get that expertise, but rather to go to where the experts are and ask -- it must stop carving out special places for citizens to participate with government in an official capacity, and start soliciting input and sharing its own expertise where experts are to be found.
All three of these things can be solved without government "behaving more like a startup." Nobody really wants government to behave like a startup -- nobody wants their government to "pivot" or to bet the farm. We certainly don't want it obesessed with it's own margins, and until Marlboro Miles become legal tender, there's a bright line between what government can do and what business can do. We certainly don't want the government to worship sunk costs, and we do want it to be "more agile, like a startup", the fact is: most startups fail.
And more often than not, government cannot afford that luxury. Take the story of USAJobs.gov. Government did the thing that I've been hoping they'd do for a long time -- they stopped relying on contractors, got some developers and developed their own software in-house. It ought to be that USAJobs.gov can launcha minimum viable product and iterate, but instead what happened was, the website launched with some bugs and Congress flipped out. Congress isn't requesting iteration, they're requesting heads on platters. The final step and the most difficult one is to change the expectations of the public and, frankly, of Congress. Government can't innovate unless there is less political outrage in failure.
Government's best moments of innovation were when government leveraged its strengths of being government, and used those resources and its patience in order to innovate. So I think it's time we moved beyond this simple "government should act more like a startup" idea. We need to admit to ourselves that that notion isn't pragmatic: the economic incentives aren't right, and the cost of failure is too high. Government need not be a startup in order to innovate. Instead, let's focus on what the actual barriers to innovation and change them.