What the Obama administration's national CTO should do

posted 13 November 2008

The Obama administration has announced a national CTO position and geeks across the line are lining up to suggest what the CTO's priorities should be. The idea of a national CTO position is one of my favourite parts of Obama's platform, so here's my own wish list.

Define the role of government IT

Specifically, the role of IT systems should be to increase efficiency or provide new services. If the new system costs more to run than the old system, your bid is rejected. If your new system does less than the old system -- thus requiring, as too often happens, the parallel maintenance of the older system in order to cover these cases -- then your design is rejected. IT is powerful and gets cheaper every year. IT should make government cheaper and more efficient to run. That's why businesses use IT: because it makes them more money to do so than not. So no excuses.

Of course, the definition of "efficiency" can be a little tricky to come by, so here's two suggestions: speed of transactions (performance), volume of transactions (scalability), cost per transaction (efficiency). As a rule of thumb, new systems should be on the good side of at least two of these metrics.

The other issue that's even trickier to define is "quality of service". The government already has pretty strict rules about how accessible things should be; these can usually be applied to IT systems successfully.

All government IT should be open and interoperable

I don't mean open source; I don't care if your department chooses Windows or Linux (and the cheaper solution is not always an open source one). I mean that if one government department has a valid and reasonable reason to use data that is already collected and held by another agency, it should be practical to do so without re-collecting that data. There are tremendous inefficiencies in government produced by having to constantly re-acquire data that the government already knows about you.

To that end, I propose federally mandated APIs to all government data. No matter how big or small, if your department gets data in, it should be able to put data out again. Obviously I don't mean that the whole government should have standardized RESTful APIs lying around, but a basic federal standard for data exchange should be produced to provide a minimum baseline of functionality. At the very minimum, any citizen should be able to electronically access any data a government department holds about them at any time. Obviously this requires a federal-level system of authentication; that's a big job, but if Yahoo can do it for 400 million users, then the US government can do it for 300. It's tricky, but it's definitely been done before.

To be clear, I am not talking about a huge, central government database. Few things are less efficient than mandating that everybody has to store their data in the same place and giving one department the keys to the castle. Departments have heterogeneous needs and capabilities; they should store the data how they like, as long as it can come out again. Third-party services will soon evolve to aggregate and collate this data, should that turn out to be a useful service. The lack of a single central database will also reduce the "honeypot" effect having so many systems online could create for malicious third parties.

All government paperwork should be online first, and primarily

Paperwork is what people did last century. All government data will be (and should be) stored in digital form eventually, so skip the expensive and costly data entry process and collect it all digitally in the first place. This will be another huge boost in efficiency and another huge cost savings -- again, you need only look at the private sector. Everybody does everything online these days (with some extremely important exceptions; see below).

I don't mean bullshit like "the PDF of the form is on our website, print it out and mail it in". I mean actual, online, digital-to-digital data capture. Need passport photos? Upload 'em. Software is more than smart enough to detect photos that are not good enough; it could even crop them to size for you. Need signatures? Digital signatures already exist and are already legal, and have been since Bill Clinton's presidency.

Sure, there's a few things you need to do offline -- your driving test, for instance. But physical, offline parts are the only parts you should have to do online. You should be able to turn up with all the paperwork already done, at the appointed time, do the test, and get out. No standing in line to get a number to sit and wait for your number to be called so you can hand in a form. All that is is a waste of your time and taxpayer dollars paying keyboard monkeys to type in the data, and people to manage them, and guards to guard them, and people to clean their offices. Bureaucracy is expensive.

The Department of Getting Shit Done

With everything online, accessibility is a big concern. The visually impaired are not an issue: screen readers can read out online forms significantly more easily than offline forms. But there are other kinds of accessibility: poor people may not have a computer or Internet access; the illiterate have a lot of trouble with online forms (though they have a lot of trouble with offline forms too, to be fair); the homeless may have both of these problems. It seems that for a certain subset of edge cases, it's still necessary to have a physical office where people can go and ask questions and get help with the forms.

The thing about handling all bureaucracy online is that computers are much more versatile than big physical buildings. At the moment you have a DMV building, a social security building, an immigration office, a hundred other government departments, each with their own physical premises, offices, staff and maintenance costs. It's tremendously expensive. But you can solve both these problems -- access and expense -- with a single solution: the department of getting stuff done.

Instead of a separate office for each function, you collapse them all into a single office that consists of ranks of computers set up for government bureaucracy, with screen-reader, magnifier and other accessibility software and peripherals already installed. If you lack a computer, you come to the DoGSD and you can do it there, for free, no matter what department it is you need to deal with. With all the separate customer-facing government offices we could close in this way, we could afford to have a lot of outlets of the DoGSD -- maybe we could put one in every post office and library, giving new purpose to institutions whose relevance is fading in a digital age. That would mean everybody would have an office nearby, meaning greater accessibility for the poor or infirm.

Each computer at the DoGSD would have a phone next to it, which in case of difficulty you can use to place a call to a helpline for each government department. At the other end would be a civil servant trained to help you get your task done. Because that civil servant could be anywhere, the government could place these call-center locations anywhere in the country, generating new sources of employment in depressed areas. And because you only have one center for the whole nation, these civil servants would be more fully employed and efficiently used -- no long waits for customers, and no bored government employees sitting around wasting taxpayer money.

There's a reason we use so much IT

As I've said over and over, there's a reason we use so much technology in the private sector: it makes things easier, faster, more efficient and more useful for everybody involved. Government has been woefully slow in adapting to this, and it's time for that to change. That's what Obama's CTO should be taking care of.