‘The woeful state of government technology’

Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

San Francisco Chief Digital Services Officer Carrie Bishop published an excellent commentary piece that touches on several issues we in the digital government industry don’t talk much about, or at all.

Particularly, her pointed thoughts on the dismal state of government technology are something we as an industry need to discuss more openly and deeply, and emphatically address if we truly care about the future of a healthy democracy.

This part of Carrie’s commentary speaks to me, and is something everyone in the industry should read, talk more about, actively get unsettled with and do something to change:

Looking at the woeful state of government technology it’s clear there is a crisis in our sector. The struggle of legacy technology is real, and the market is ripe for disruptors, but the lead times, the slow pace of change in the sector, and the age-old problem of procurement all make it a bleak market for new entrants.

The systems are rotting from the inside. Their molasses code, their disintegrating interfaces, and their putrifying business models are at the core of government service delivery, but they persist because they are so entrenched. In theory, it would be easy for a company to breeze through and disrupt the incumbents. The hard part is the change.

The true challenge is the time it takes to procure from cold contact to signed contract, and convincing people to go with an unknown entity instead of an entrenched inevitability. The hard work is helping cities imagine services that are designed around the people that use them, instead of department silos. Based on my experience as a vendor in this market I’d say that this process takes about two years from start to finish with just one city client.

The most viable option for governments is to build internal teams who can absorb the impact of this hostile environment. Expecting new vendors to have enough financial backing and mature enough products is too big of an ask. I have realized that there are some things only government teams can do. Only an internal team can build for the most complex use cases and the edge-cases, as well as the mainstream. Vendors, and even non-profits, especially new entrants to the market, are just not financially able to do this hard work, but this is exactly what government should be focused on.

For many legacy institutions, empowering democracy has become a secondary priority to maintaining the status quo for profit or personal stability, whether it’s the business model of a government-focused nonprofit organization or legacy vendor or a public sector leader that’s been in the same comfortable role for years. This isn’t meant to condemn, but more to emphatically point out that a sense of purpose for some needs to be re-established. This is tough for entrenched people and organizations.

There is a gray area with respect to internal digital service teams and external vendor support. What we don’t talk about much is that the reality is the smaller a government gets, the less likely they’re able to attract or afford digital talent, regardless of the sense of mission it brings.

Unfortunately, this is where we see even worse habits with respect to legacy organizations. We often conflate what is happening at the national, state or big city level to what everyone else (and there are a lot of everyone elses) can realistically accomplish on their own.

The state of government technology is woeful. The expectations we have for those in executive technology positions, as well as the legacy institutions (organizations and vendors) who have captured much of the market, are low. What’s unfortunate is that many inside government don’t realize how bad legacy vendor technology really is, judging it not by merit, but by an established relationship or how entrenched it is within the market.

As Carrie mentions, this environment makes it tough for civic entrepreneurs to get and stay excited about their potential to help re-imagine civics in their own way, in a way that serves everyone. Speaking from firsthand experience, it is a challenge for new entrant disruptors to gain a foothold, and there are many reasons for this. This is a conversation we need to have, and I’m thankful Carrie opened up that door.

I look forward to continuing it.

Read more: The same but different

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About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh and co-founder/CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

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