Geeks’ GovTech Gripes

As a Code for America Fellow, as an open data advocate, and as a civic hacker, I was thrilled to read the new Digital Government Strategy that was released by the White House last week. This plan sets out practical steps and milestones that will ensure every federal agency embraces the “government as a platform” concept and the advantages that come with it. With calls for developer support resources, open data, open APIs, and mobile-focused development, the Obama Administration is pushing the US federal government to reach out to citizens as well as developers.

Very uplifting stuff!

But then I visited Slashdot, one of the oldest technology news discussion sites on the Internet, and I was quickly brought back down to earth by the gripes of the geeks. The consensus of the Slashdot crowd seems to be that the plan is either a cheap political stunt or an inevitable boondoggle. The Slashdot community is composed largely of American technology professionals and it’s definitely worth looking at some of the sentiments they shared in the discussion of the plan.

Starting things off is this cynical anonymous post:

This president sure has some really scatter-shot priorities. It's like he's just shooting at everything and hoping that by the time he's out of office, SOMETHING is going to stick... I'm sure this will be entirely reasonable, too. It won't be broken like and all the other sites they spent tens of millions on. And I'm sure it'll only cost tens off millions more to make [it] accessible via mobile... This is just a giant hand-out -- to some buddy, no doubt.

The prioritization argument was quickly rebutted by another user:

Oh, quit your hate rant. He's trying to drag the government into the 21st century. He knows that mobile phones are everywhere and wants to make the government more accessible.

Of course, this being an Internet discussion forum, a long heated political argument ensued, completely unrelated to the original topic. Scrolling past the flames and the Ron Paul cheers, however…

Many posters expressed the sentiment that government couldn’t accomplish the milestone goals outlined in the strategy in a timely manner. The 12-month goals for each federal agency — establishing resources for outside developers, focusing on mobile content delivery, creating and implementing open data standards — are ambitious but many agencies have already been working on similar initiatives for years. However, many Slashdotters felt that the US government wouldn’t even be able to meet the plan’s 90-day goal: a webpage on each agency site outlining that agency’s progress adopting the DGS requirements. An example:

What a Laugh! The Government can't even update their websites in less than 90 days. They are too inefficient to complete a task like this within a few months.

Cost overruns. Time overruns. Ineffective and inefficient government workers. Handouts to political cronies. The word “boondoggle” was used at least once.

This is the vision of government that many Americans have these days — these comments are just tech-specific. And there are plenty of examples of cost overruns and failures on government technology projects, from the FBI Sentinel program at the federal level to this month’s local Oakland police database outcry. But that’s not the way things have to be.

First of all, these aren’t problems unique to the government sector. Shelves of books have been written about the failure of large-scale technology and software development projects in the private sector. As one of the largest enterprises on the planet, of course the US government will suffer its share of these failures. Hundreds of millions of citizens, millions of businesses, and hundreds of countries around the world are its “customers” and its systems span the globe and beyond — occasional failure is inevitable in a system this large.

But more importantly: the Digital Government Strategy and similar initiatives are absolutely critical to changing this vision of government shared by many Americans. By opening data and promoting transparency, federal, state, and local governments are working to make the government more responsive and accessible to constituents. By stressing open standards and interoperability, the government can help minimize the risks of technology project failure resulting from system incompatibility and tech silos.

This vision is at the very heart of the work that Code for America and our allies do every day. From Honolulu to Philadelphia, we’re helping cities transform data into valuable information that helps their citizens and businesses. We’re building apps on top of this data that connect people with crucial government services and improve communities and neighborhoods. And I for one am excited to see where the government’s digital roadmap will lead us!

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