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Congress, Media & Government’s Tech Problem

August 24, 2019 / Dcode

This is the second part of a two-part series. Click here to read part 1: ICYMI Government has a tech problem


The structural problem impinging on the federal government’s ability to procure and develop modern technology is threefold:

  1. Agencies try and avoid risk outright rather than manage it and the punishment for failure far exceeds the reward for success; the government maintains
  2. A procurement process that has become more important than the outcome
  3. A hiring process that is torturous for the applicant and rarely relies on subject matter experts to identify talent

In addition to government agencies and the private sector, there are two other stakeholder groups that are responsible for the maintenance of the problem, but also have the potential to drive change: the press and Congress.

In the press

One might wonder what the press has to do with fixing government’s technology, but the press plays an important role. From major publications (think New York Times) to sector specific ones (think Wired), and trade publications (think FedScoop), each can move the government forward or contribute to the pull of inertia. By creating or reducing a fear of failure and risk aversion through their reporting, the press has quite a bit of influence.

The press could certainly help change behavior and the acceptance of risk by agencies in a few key ways.

First, trade publications need to write more about emerging technology. Without frequent articles about what the private sector is adopting or anticipating as the next disruptive technology, a large part of government will believe blockchain equals bitcoin and artificial intelligence equals Skynet. There needs to be a broader conversation about what is driving other industries forward and reinforcing that government isn’t “too unique” to be early adopters.

Just as critical is positive news around testing, use, and outcomes from emerging technology that would encourage broader adoption and risk taking among agencies. If the average agency program sees the emerging technology market as the realm of DARPA alone, the government will never move forward from a technical perspective. Increased reporting on what other agencies are learning and scaling could encourage other agencies to follow suit.

The same can be said for sector specific publications. Here, you are more likely to read about the government’s maintenance of decades old mainframes than about the use of robotics to help amputees at the VA. But still, there is a growing interest among the technology community in working for or building companies/products for the public sector. There are real, complex, and meaningful challenges to solve in this space.

Broad discussion of the opportunities and problems  in government by publications like Fast Company, Wired, and Recode would encourage more people with modern technology skill sets to enter this sector of the economy. And by showing technologists and entrepreneurs the impact they can have — by highlighting those who have successfully done it before — would only compound that interest.

Finally, because the relationship between agencies and government oversight is critically important to our style of governance, press coverage of these moments are a spotlight. When audits and oversight become embarrassing moments, it freezes progress. Sometimes this is warranted, but other times the amplification of normal oversight causes an agency to stop progress for fear of bad press.

Short of widespread drug use and illegal activity, an audit report isn’t normally sensational. Most frequently and correctly, audit reports highlight areas for improvement with the common phrase “Opportunities Exist”. The press should quit sensationalizing Government Accountability Office reports, Inspector General alerts, and hearings that aren’t sensational. Talk about the content of the oversight and allow for the possibility of multiple conclusions.

If the press does a better job of picking and choosing when to yell ‘fire’, agencies will react more effectively to oversight and not clamp down on risk inappropriately.

On the Hill

In many ways, Congress is the gatekeeper that allows the rest of government to tolerate risk and, at times, failure. Congressional oversight plays a critical role, but in most cases it is reactive. By being proactive with agencies in the emerging technology space, House and Senate Committees (and individual members) could potentially have broad ranging benefits..

First, Congress needs to allow for more pilots, emerging technology set-asides, and unique contracting authorities across a wider set of agencies. 2017’s National Defense Authorization Act opened up a few authorities for the Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security, and General Services Administration to acquire “innovative commercial items” (see Sec. 878). Congress even did everyone a favor and defined innovation!

(f) DEFINITION. — In this section, the term ‘‘innovative’’ means —

(1) any technology, process, or method, including research and development, that is new as of the date of submission of a proposal; or

(2) any application that is new as of the date of submission of a proposal of a technology, process, or method existing as of such date.

These new authorities are welcome, but more can be done here. Congress should closely monitor how emerging technology purchased through these pilots is adopted across government and not simply contained in the silo of the programs. If Congress can work to ensure these agencies report on progress and show how technology is scaling, a model can be created that may be repeatable.

In my previous post, I highlighted the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. They are doing some excellent work now, but if the technologies they procure don’t see adoption across the rest of the agency, most of their procurement work will be essentially a novelty.

While allowing for greater latitude in procuring and adopting any relevant technology, legislating on specific technologies such as cloud computing, mobile, or artificial intelligence with the intent to increase adoption in government is a poor use of the legislative tool. Speed of adoption is an organizational and cultural issue, not a legal one.

Congress would be much better served by holding hearings and writing letters to agencies to gather information on how they are integrating specific technologies into the agency, what is resulting from the use, and following up on progress. Agencies respond to this type of Congressional interaction much more rapidly than implementing a legislative requirement. Agencies should be held accountable to modernize and make use of all of the authorities provided to them, if Congress encourages use and adoption, it could have a long ranging effect.

The important (boring) work of reforming government

Again, we should all be wary of large, nebulous government reform efforts that promise grand improvements in what is certainly the largest enterprise in the U.S. (and possibly the world). I’ve highlighted some practices that should end across a number of stakeholders and others that should be adopted. But honestly, if all of these things magically happened tomorrow, it would make a small dent in the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the federal government. The adoption of emerging technology would certainly have a positive impact, but there is much, much more to do.

Without significant budget, procurement, and hiring reform across the executive branch, the federal government will make only marginal progress. It will take years to make these improvements and longer to see the benefit. Companies a fraction of the size of government take years, even up to a decade, to complete a turnaround. The government should be afforded this amount of time but also be held accountable to keep focus and pivot when necessary. The Obama Administration saw a half dozen different reform agendas that changed tack across the Executive Branch each time a new one was rolled out.

Until a focused agenda around government reform occurs, anyone who is interested in this space should be working on these or other smaller, targeted steps. Dcode will continue to identify, teach, and push great companies and their products into the federal market. If and when the government wants to dig deep and reform the procurement system, we’ll be waiting with lots of good suggestions built from trying to knock down the door from the outside.