Digital government may still be in its infancy, but things are starting to shape up in the same way the Web caught on in the late 1990s.
That was the central message offered Tuesday by U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith during a keynote presentation at the State of the Net Conference in Washington, D.C.
“It’s the beginning,” Smith said. “People don’t yet see what’s going to happen in this extraordinary way, but you’re starting to see it, and you can feel it, and people are coming.”
Several digital service shops have popped up around the federal government during the past year, with more technologists dedicating their skills to public service. Typically, Smith said, government only focuses on tech efforts during wartime. But that has to change; the digital representation of the federal government shouldn’t be any different than what Americans expect in the commercial world, she said. And it is changing.
“What we really need to do is have technical people at the table,” people with what she calls a technical quotient, she said. “We’re the country that created Amazon … we’re the country that created Facebook and Twitter and the Internet. Why shouldn’t the websites and the mobile services and the way we do customer service with the American people as the government — why shouldn’t it be that good? Because we are that good as an American people. ”
Increasingly, techies from Silicon Valley and other innovation epicenters are joining organizations like the General Services Administration’s 18F and the Office of Management and Budget’s U.S. Digital Service. Just recently, Smith said, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Digital Service team hired Amazon’s former director of IT, Ellen Ratajak, who was the third engineer that founder Jeff Bezos hired when forming his company.
“What’s her second act after coming from Amazon as an engineer?” Smith said. “Our veterans.”
That’s not to say that these digital services teams are meant to build everything for the government and replace IT outsourcing to private contractors.
“That would be not good,” Smith said. “But there needs to be a person in the room who speaks that language.”
Our greatest asset
Fundamentally, to attract more tech talent to the federal government, there has to be more people with that technology quotient in general, Smith said. And that’s another of her big focuses: connecting the innovative divide.
“I believe in surface area,” she said. “More people doing things innovatively will solve more problems … Our greatest asset is the American people.”
While Silicon Valley is saturated with tech entrepreneurs, other more rural areas miss the benefit of a world that revolves around the Internet. But by bridging that gap, Smith thinks America will then be able to take the next step in its digital growth.
“[Innovation] is happening all over our country, but it’s hiding,” she said. “We need to bridge that together, and I think that as we begin to do that, the American people will do the thing they’ve always done, which is lead us into the future.”