The U.S. Government Needs to Hire More Geeks

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Randy Watson is choking back tears. He is a proud and grizzled Vietnam veteran, standing in front of an audience of hundreds. With the help of his daughter, Randy has just driven 1,100 miles from his home in Joplin, Missouri to Washington, DC to tell the story of how he almost died. But as he stands on stage overcome with emotion, Randy is very much alive. And he wants to thank the people responsible: policy wonks and data geeks.

Three years ago, the White House welcomed the Presidential Innovation Fellows program to the world. The mission was simple: save lives, save taxpayer dollars, and fuel job growth in the private sector. By applying proven methods from Silicon Valley — such as lean startup, agile development and design thinking — inside government itself, the executive branch has since been able to do things long thought impossible. Despite ambitious goals and few

the 18 inaugural Presidential Innovation Fellows that started work in the summer of 2012 were able to make game-changing progress in a matter of months.

At the Small Business Administration, Project RFP-EZ demonstrated that a streamlined, more competitive bidding process for government contracts led to 30% savings with no loss of quality. (For perspective, if such a reduction were made across total annual federal IT spending it would amount to saving taxpayers $24 billion per year.)

USAID’s Project Better Than Cash helped move international aid payments from cash to mobile phones. While first-degree payments from the U.S. Treasury had moved to electronic means long before, second-degree payments — from other countries and non-governmental organizations to end-users — needed U.S. help to move from cash to mobile phone payments. This change to digital payments reduced waste and graft (which had been found to constitute as much as 30% of aid dollars), enhanced the safety of U.S. military personal and aid workers, and delivered greater impact toward life-altering development projects across Afghanistan.

And at the Departments of Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs, Project Blue Button empowered senior citizens and military veterans with their own health information. With a simple log-in to authenticate himself, a veteran could for the first time access machine-readable and human-readable details of their current and past medical conditions, allergies, lab tests and more. It’s Blue Button that brought Randy Watson to Washington.

Randy suffers from congestive heart failure, and after experiencing his eighth heart attack, he awoke in the hospital to a doctor telling him how lucky he was to have been carrying a printout of his Blue Button health data because that information — which the doctor would have had no other way to access — allowed the hospital staff to avert an adverse medical reaction that most likely would have killed him.

However, in the months that followed these successes, the Healthcare.gov website became perhaps the most public technology failure in American history. The website failed not because the project was technically infeasible, but due to overly prescriptive, tech-unaware legislative language, coupled with product development mismanagement by bureaucrats lacking the appropriate know-how.

The former is the responsibility of the legislative branch, and the latter the responsibility of the executive branch.

We need innovation in both branches.

Sadly, neither issue is unique to the Affordable Care Act. As the severity of the Healthcare.gov crisis became clear, President Obama turned to Presidential Innovation Fellows and other technologists from the private sector. By employing an “Innovation Fellows” approach and a heavy dose of 16-hour days, the site was made functional in a matter of weeks. Once the technology worked, eight million people – more than originally forecast — were able to sign up for healthcare coverage in the months that followed.

In order to create more Presidential Innovation Fellows-style successes and fewer Healthcare.gov-style failures, the Administration has scaled up the program with more projects and more Fellows. Born from this effort are the new shared-services division known as 18F and the cross-agency movement called the U.S. Digital Service, which will embed hundreds of technologists across 25 agencies before the end of this Administration.

Just a few weeks ago, President Obama enshrined the Presidential Innovation Fellows program through an Executive Order, saying, “What began as an experiment is becoming a success. That’s why I’m making it permanent. From now on, Presidential Innovation Fellows will be an integral part of our government.”

Of course, there are three branches that make up our federal government. While the executive branch has taken dramatic steps to infuse innovation inside its walls, the legislative branch has not… yet. Now is the time to create a Congressional Innovation Fellows program, in order to better inform the legislative process, test new ideas, and merge technology know-how with policy vision in the halls of the Capitol.

In the 21st century, policy doesn’t work unless the technology works. That simple truth is why we need a federal government — including both the executive and legislative branches – that understands technology and innovation and infuses best practices from Silicon Valley into the very fabric of government. We need to invite more techies, more data geeks, and more innovators to the policy table. If we do, I can only imagine what the Congressional Innovation Fellows and their partners might accomplish — and whose life they might save.