Better Government Tech Is Possible

Better Government Tech Is Possible
Written by Techbot

In the first four months of the Covid-19 pandemic, government leaders paid $100 million for management consultants at McKinsey to model the spread of the coronavirus and build online dashboards to project hospital capacity.

It’s unsurprising that leaders turned to McKinsey for help, given the notorious backwardness of government technology. Our everyday experience with online shopping and search only highlights the stark contrast between user-friendly interfaces and the frustrating inefficiencies of government websites—or worse yet, the ongoing need to visit a government office to submit forms in person. The 2016 animated movie Zootopia depicts literal sloths running the DMV, a scene that was guaranteed to get laughs given our low expectations of government responsiveness.

More seriously, these doubts are reflected in the plummeting levels of public trust in government. From early failures to the more recent implosions of state unemployment websites, policymaking without attention to the technology that puts the policy into practice has led to disastrous consequences.

The root of the problem is that the government, the largest employer in the US, does not keep its employees up-to-date on the latest tools and technologies. When I served in the Obama White House as the nation’s first deputy chief technology officer, I had to learn constitutional basics and watch annual training videos on sexual harassment and cybersecurity. But I was never required to take a course on how to use technology to serve citizens and solve problems. In fact, the last significant legislation about what public professionals need to know was the Government Employee Training Act, from 1958, well before the internet was invented.

In the United States, public sector awareness of how to use data or human-centered design is very low. Out of 400-plus public servants surveyed in 2020, less than 25 percent received training in these more tech-enabled ways of working, though 70 percent said they wanted such training. 

But knowing how to use new technology does not have to be an afterthought, and in some places it no longer is. In Singapore, the Civil Service Training College requires technology and digital-skills training for its 145,000 civilian public servants. Canada’s “Busrides” training platform gives its quarter-million public servants short podcasts on topics like data science, AI, and machine learning to listen to during their commutes. In Argentina, career advancement and salary raises are tied to the completion of training in human-centered design and data-analytical thinking. When public professionals possess these skills—learning how to use technology to work in more agile ways, getting smarter from both data and community engagement—we all benefit.

Today I serve as chief innovation officer for the state of New Jersey, working to improve state websites that deliver crucial information and services. When New Jersey’s aging mainframe strained under the load of Covid jobless claims, for example, we wrote forms in plain language, simplified and eliminated questions, revamped the design, and made the site mobile-friendly. Small fixes that came from sitting down and listening to claimants translated into 48 minutes saved per person per application. New Jersey also created a Covid-19 website in three days so that the public had the information they wanted in one place. We made more than 134,000 updates as the pandemic wore on, so that residents benefited from frequent improvements.

Now with the explosion of interest in artificial intelligence, Congress is turning its attention to ensuring that those who work in government learn more about the technology. US senators Gary Peters (D-Michigan) and Mike Braun (R-Indiana) are calling for universal leadership training in AI with the AI Leadership Training Act, which is moving forward to the full Senate for consideration. The bill directs the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the federal government’s human resources department, to train federal leadership in AI basics and risks. However, it does not yet mandate the teaching of how to use AI to improve how the government works.

The AI Leadership Training Act is an important step in the right direction, but it needs to go beyond mandating basic AI training. It should require that the OPM teach public servants how to use AI technologies to enhance public service by making government services more accessible, providing constant access to city services, helping analyze data to understand citizen needs, and creating new opportunities for the public to participate in democratic decisionmaking.

For instance, cities are already experimenting with AI-based image generation for participatory urban planning, while San Francisco’s PAIGE AI chatbot is helping to answer business owners’ questions about how to sell to the city. Helsinki, Finland, uses an AI-powered decisionmaking tool to analyze data and provide recommendations on city policies. In Dubai, leaders are not just learning AI in general, but learning how to use ChatGPT specifically. The legislation, too, should mandate that the OPM not just teach what AI is, but how to use it to serve citizens.

In keeping with the practice in every other country, the legislation should require that training to be free. This is already the case for the military. On the civilian side, however, the OPM is required to charge a fee for its training programs. A course titled Enabling 21st-Century Leaders, for example, costs $2,200 per person. Even if the individual applies to their organization for reimbursement, too often programs do not have budgets set aside for up-skilling.

If we want public servants to understand AI, we cannot charge them for it. There is no need to do so, either. Building on a program created in New Jersey, six states are now collaborating with each other in a project called InnovateUS to develop free live and self-paced learning in digital, data, and innovation skills. Because the content is all openly licensed and designed specifically for public servants, it can easily be shared across states and with the federal government as well.

The Act should also demand that the training be easy to find. Even if Congress mandates the training, public professionals will have a hard time finding it without the physical infrastructure to ensure that public servants can take and track their learning about tech and data. In Germany, the federal government’s Digital Academy offers a single site for digital up-skilling to ensure widespread participation. By contrast, in the United States, every federal agency has its own (and sometimes more than one) website where employees can look for training opportunities, and the OPM does not advertise its training across the federal government. While the Department of Defense has started building so that all employees could eventually have access to the same content, this project needs to be accelerated.

The Act should also require that data on the outcomes of AI training be collected and published. The current absence of data on federal employee training prevents managers, researchers, and taxpayers from properly evaluating these training initiatives. More comprehensive information about our public workforce, beyond just demographics and job titles, could be used to measure the impact of AI training on cost savings, innovation, and performance improvements in serving the American public.

Unlike other political reforms that could take generations to achieve in our highly partisan and divisive political climate, investing in people—teaching public professionals how to use AI and the latest technology to work in more agile, evidence-based, and participatory ways to solve problems—is something we can do right now to create institutions that are more responsive, reliable, and deserving of our trust.

I understand the hesitance to talk about training people in government. When I worked for the Obama White House, the communications team was reluctant to make any public pronouncements about investing in government lest we be labeled “Big Government” advocates. Since the Reagan years, Republicans have promoted a “small government” narrative. But what matters to most Americans is not big or small but that we have a better government.

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