The US federal government spends between $80 and $85 billion on information technology (IT) every year, or about 2 percent of its total budget. Much of that money is wasted on mismanaged programs—initiatives that deliver either the wrong thing or nothing at all.
Our decrepit public IT infrastructure system has three root causes:
- Federal procurement rules are rigid and outdated, designed for a slower-moving era where the biggest problem was corrupt acquisition, not broken websites.
- The human capital required to design, deliver, and operate high-quality IT systems finds the private sector more rewarding.
- We’re buying the wrong things for the wrong reasons, rather than investing in tools that empower citizens.
The good news is there is a solution—one thing government could do better than any other entity or institution: Get the data right.
By data, we mean all civic data, including health, energy, education, economic, transportation, urban development, environmental, national security, and criminal justice. We don’t mean phone records or privacy-breaching intrusion—hugely important topics—instead, we are talking about an investment in civic data for citizens to build stronger communities and better lives.
Connecting civic data to policy may seem rational, even obvious, but it doesn’t happen very often. As a result, public officials make decisions with limited facts and data, and citizens get poorer government services unnecessarily. This is a problem worth solving.
Getting People on Data
Currently, it is difficult for government workers to get clear answers to many simple questions—whether it’s about the disability claims backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) or depleted water tables in the heartland. Missing or unreliable data can also have more dire results: Broken data links on a gun background check, for example, allowed an accused felon to purchase a weapon and kill nine people last summer (they’re still not fixed). Knowledge gaps like these directly affect government’s ability to improve services, foster sustainability, ensure safety, and address other important issues.
A big reason for this is that our public-sector IT talent is spread too thinly. They are asked to be experts at every layer of the technology stack, from the data foundation to cybersecurity to mobile interfaces. And procurement rules require that they choose providers slowly, hence, by the time a system is approved, paid for, and implemented, its functionality is outdated. This process is antithetical to how every other (commercial) web-based service in the world functions and operates. Consequently, government is deeply encumbered by the systems we’ve asked them to design.
We propose that the government shift its focus away from websites, and set its sights on data collection, aggregation, reconciliation, and operational access. If it could ensure that the civic data it collected were useful, “clean,” and reliable, independent technology experts could then build the downstream, people-facing services.
To their credit, some governments are beginning to pay more attention to data. Projects like Data.gov, the 66-member international Open Government Partnership, and Code for Kansas City, as well as organizations like the Sunlight Foundation and Code for America illustrate how governments can work with nonprofit partners, make data available to help citizens save money and time, inform government decisions, and ultimately increase transparency, accountability, and privacy.
Getting Data for People
The canonical examples of successful government investments in data for the benefit of citizens are the GPS system (spearheaded at Stanford University) and the Human Genome Project (HGP). The initial GPS constellation cost $12 billion to launch and costs about $750 million per year to operate. It generates $100 billion annually in sales and location-based services. The HGP numbers are even more impressive. According to Yale Law Professor Peter Schuck, a government investment of “ ... $5.6 billion by 2010 generated, directly and indirectly, $796 billion in economic output.” We imagine this would be even greater if it included national security or health benefits.
But between the galactic and the microscopic are the day-to-day services citizens and institutional stakeholders need. These are too often tangled in the modern version of a phone tree—when we "press three to hear our options” online, websites crash or bring up the wrong information.
The dissemination of time and money into a wide array of sites and systems means that data ultimately doesn’t get the care it deserves. We build business intelligence and predictive analytics systems, with little data fuel to power them; data is generally an afterthought. There’s a difference between investing in technology systems and investing in data. In the immortal words of Taleb’s Fat Tony, “It’s not the same thing.”
Government needs to be the epistemic root-source of data that anyone can access. Becoming this primary "source of truth” is an achievable and affordable goal, and if we set such a goal, it would allow the government to focus on collecting, aggregating, consolidating, and reconciling data that can be used equally by all citizens.
There are so many opportunities to provide data that drive civic change: climate, education, criminal justice, trade-and-commerce, food, and more. And we can do all this without compromising privacy; in fact, done well, it would improve privacy. Government is on the hook to ensure that data systems make information available to citizens and protect privacy.
Expecting Big (Data) Things
Every year more than 100,000 people die in the United States from avoidable medical errors. That’s about the same number of fatalities as gunshot wounds, breast cancer, and automobile accidents combined. In every other segment of technical society, data-driven safety systems save lives. They would here too. If data were more available—whether through mandatory or voluntary reporting (as the Institute of Medicine recommended) or other methods, we could reduce that number.
A digital government that provided better data could both offer better public services and create new companies that create jobs.
One successful example government-led health data initiatives is the Blue Button program from the VA. It allows veterans to retrieve their complete medical record from the VA, and share it with family members and clinical service providers they trust. In the absence of point-to-point, telephone-like health data interoperability, this is an important first step. So far more than 600 Blue Button members—like Walgreens, Aetna, and the American Cancer Society—have pledged to provide people with secure, electronic access to their health data.
Of course, no public-facing institution can completely abandon its online presence, and we are not suggesting that. We recommend smarter discussions about providing civic data.
Focusing on civic data would mean:
- Making public data easily accessible to anyone, anytime, for any purpose
- Establishing processes to keep public data current, accurate, and usable
- Establishing protections that insure individual privacy and national security
- Making “yes” the default answer to, “Can we publish that data?”
- Creating a trusted, real-life data custodian whose job it is to make sure that 1-4 happen
Concentrating government’s attention, creativity, and money on robust data services would improve everything it does. It will create jobs by building services on top of that data foundation, and it will help citizens who are frustrated by the unrealistic expectation that our government should keep up with our digitized society.
Access and reliable civic data has the power to help citizens and leaders make better decisions for communities and sectors across the country and the world. Government has a unique opportunity to provide this critical tool; it just has to recognize the opportunity, and focus.