The U.S. government fights forest fires, prevents epidemics, responds to financial crises, and provides critical services to billions of people around the world. Unfortunately, the feds have been slow to embrace digital transformation, leading to massive failures in delivering its customer promise. New digital initiatives promise change. Amidst growing complexity and shrinking budgets, public servants will need to embrace technology as a force-multiplier.
Technology has been at the heart of major government scandals in recent years, highlighting flaws that exist across the public sector. A 2015 report exposed that more than 300,000 veterans died while waiting for their benefits applications to be processed by the Veterans Health Administration. Part of the problem was increased need arising from two wars. Outdated information systems, including miles of filing cabinets, had a central role in these delays. In 2013, President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, faced failure because of faulty technology. Millions of users went to Healthcare.gov to sign up for insurance but found an error message. The program’s financial viability depended on meeting enrollment targets, particularly for young, low-risk consumers. To rescue the website, a team of Silicon Valley techies came to Washington.
This exposed the Obama Administration to the need for widespread digital transformation. The White House established the U.S. Digital Service (USDS). The new office brought modern technology practices to government, building on the example of the young Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. USDS recruited top talent through 2-year “tours of duty” and established principles to guide technology management. In parallel, the General Services Administration established a new team, dubbed “18F” to build platforms for use across agencies, reducing cost and complexity.
Of course, not all parts of the government had been blind to digital transformation. The military has been investing in GPS and internet-of-things technology for intelligence, situational awareness, and communication. The U.S. Forest Service uses remote sensors to automatically map wildfires and respond in rapidly changing conditions. IoT has proven useful in costs savings as well, with the GSA using sensors in buildings to drive energy efficiency. Cisco estimates that public sector use of IoT could deliver $4.6 trillion in value.
Based on lessons learned in TOM, I present three recommendations to accelerate the transformation of government.
- Bring technologists into policy development. Policy formation follows the familiar double-diamond process of product development. Technology is currently an after-thought, but it could transform how policy is conceived. For example, the CFPB accepts complaints from citizens. It routes them to financial institutions and demands a response to the consumer within 14 days—an unheard level of service. The agency uses data from this process to inform supervision and publishes the data to inform consumer choice.
- Empower the supply chain to create value. The U.S. government shared its GPS data, enabling businesses like Google Maps, Uber, and Pokémon GO. It shared weather data that enabled several industries, including weather prediction, aviation, and insurance. McKinsey estimates that more of this data sharing could create $3 trillion in value annually and reduce the burden on the public sector.
- Make technology a permanent priority. Government is subject to politics, which is extremely variable. The government should mandate the USDS become a permanent function. This would communicate stability for downstream operations and allow civil servants to make rational decisions.
People in power change, but the civil service remains and the tide of technology rises. We have reason to be hopeful. (729 words)
 Office of Inspector General, Veterans Health Administration: Review of Alleged Mismanagement at the Health Eligibility Center, http://www.va.gov/oig/pubs/VAOIG-14-01792-510.pdf, accessed November 2016.
 Christopher Weaver and Louise Radnofsky, “Federal Health Site Stymied by Lack of Direction,” The Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2013, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304682504579158043537719338, accessed November 2016.
 Kymm McCabe, “Federal digital transformation: What’s next for USDS and 18F?,” The Business of Federal Technology, July 28, 2016, https://fcw.com/articles/2016/07/28/comment-mccabe-18f-usds.aspx, accessed November 2016.
 Catherine Andrews et al., “What the IoT Means for the Public Sector”, ISACA, http://www.isaca.org/Groups/Professional-English/cybersecurity/GroupDocuments/IoT%20in%20the%20Public%20Sector.pdf, accessed November 2016.
 Joseph Bradley et al., “Internet of Everything: a $4.6 Trillion Public -Sector Opportunity,” White Paper, 2013, Cisco, http://internetofeverything.cisco.com/sites/default/files/docs/en/ioe_public_sector_vas_white%20paper_121913final.pdf, accessed November 2016.
 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “How we use complaint data,” http://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint/data-use/, accessed November 2016.
 James Manyika et al., “Open data: Unlocking innovation and performance with liquid information,” McKinsey Global Institute (October 2013), McKinsey & Company, http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/open-data-unlocking-innovation-and-performance-with-liquid-information, accessed November 2016.