Megan Smith, the United States’ chief technology officer, says the U.S. government is still years behind countries like the United Kingdom in terms of embracing technology. And while she believes it’s possible to catch up, first, she says, the tech industry here needs to “show up” for its government.
“Government is only what we make of it,” Smith said on stage at the Building the Business of Civic Tech conference in New York City today. “If we show up, it’ll include our skills.”
We just have to show up so we can do the things we want to do. Megan Smith
This is advice that Smith herself has taken to heart, having left the private sector and a vibrant career at Google last year to become the country’s CTO last fall. Now, she’s calling on others to do the same.
But this will take some convincing. The standard Silicon Valley attitude to government has been that it gets in the way and slows things down, stymying the quick work that talented technologists could otherwise make of big, hairy problems. It’s the essence of Silicon Valley libertarianism: Why wait for the government to act, the thinking goes, when we can build nearly anything ourselves?
In her new role, Smith is urging the tech community to think differently; it’s a shift in mindset she says is already gradually beginning to take root. Smith is not the only high-ranking tech exec to take a government job recently. In February, LinkedIn’s former head of data products, DJ Patil, became the country’s chief data scientist. Last month, President Obama announced that former Twitter and Medium executive Jason Goldman would become the country’s first chief digital officer.
The more Silicon Valley talent the government recruits, Smith says, the more Silicon Valley practices the government is adopting. And that’s a good thing because the U.S. has a lot of catching up to do, Smith says, particularly compared to countries like the U.K., which she held up as a model of digital government.
Brits Doing It Better
Not only is the U.K. incorporating computer science into its national school curriculum, but it’s also embraced tech in the public sector by launching savvy tools such as an online marketplace where suppliers can list services for the public sector to buy. The goal of the platform is to speed up the process of government procurement, which sometimes stands in the way of the tech sector and the public sector working hand in hand. The U.K. also recently convened the D5, a G8-style summit of leading digital governments, including New Zealand, Estonia, South Korea, and Israel. Note which ally wasn’t invited.
But Smith says she believes the U.S. will soon join their ranks. Already, she says, she’s seeing hackathons pop up in unlikely places, including the Department of Interior. The Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, has held pitch competitions for new tech. Through a new digital government initiative called 18F, as well as the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, the government is also placing tech teams inside every government agency to promote innovation from within.
But there’s still a long way to go and a lot on the line. Though she doesn’t say it outright, at the core of Smith’s call for more tech leaders in government is the belief that simply improving the technology that runs the country can make a more immediate difference than sweeping policy changes that are likely to get stuck in congressional stalemates. One glaring example of this is immigration, which Smith called a “very bad user experience.” Making the visa application process simpler with technology is, in a sense, a way for the Obama administration to ease the immigration process without congressional approval.
“We just have to show up,” Smith says, “so we can do the things we want to do.”