Ask the person on the street about organizations with innovative high-tech strategies and they’re likely to give you a list of blue-chip firms. Naming a federal, state or local government agency would never occur to most of them.
But that view is out of date. Increasingly, it's government that is demonstrating IT innovation, and industry is trailing behind.
“At one time government IT was the last place to look to find innovation,” writes Matt Asay in ReadWriteWeb. “With little incentive to save money or do much beyond keep the lights on, governments across the world have happily dumped money into a cabal of legacy IT vendors without much thought for consequences. All too often, those consequences were dire.” But today, governments at all levels — federal, state, county, and city — are providing great examples of IT leadership.
Starting at the top, one doesn’t have to look any farther than President Barack Obama’s campaign to see innovation in IT, ranging from its use of big data to open source technologies. On his first day in office, he also pledged to make the federal government a model for open data. He may not have gone as far as he promised — or as far as people hoped — but it’s at least an improvement.
Similar things are happening down at the city level; New York even has its own chief digital officer. Cities and states are not only making use of open source tools, they’re also walking the open source walk by participating in open source communities and contributing their work back to open source repositories such as GitHub. “We’re reaching a tipping point where we’re seeing more collaboration not only within government agencies, but also between different agencies, and between the government and the public,” GitHub head of communications Liz Clinkenbeard was quoted as saying by Alex Howard in an O’Reilly piece on government GitHub support. Federal agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are explicitly making their code open source.
Governments aren’t just expressing a philosophical, ideological position; their actions show real business value as well. Ironically, part of what is driving innovation in government IT is a lack of funding to hire more staff at all levels; instead, branches of government are using technology to develop tools when they can’t hire the people they need. Using open source communities also helps tear down silos between agencies and lets them reuse each other’s work, or even accept citizen input.
Open data also allows other groups to develop innovative insights with government data when the government itself might not have the staff to do it. Some states and cities are even working with the IT industry for its economic development potential.
And the innovation isn’t just one-way. In addition to releasing data that citizens can use, governments are increasingly making themselves more available electronically to help them fight crime, by predicting where crime is likely to occur.
That’s not to say that government doesn’t have its share of IT disasters: one needs to look only as far as the Veterans Administration/Department of Defense debacle.
But the next time someone says “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you,” pay attention. They might be right.
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