The National Association of Counties just concluded its annual mid-winter Legislative Conference in Washington, DC. I was there in my role as NACo’s first Senior Fellow.
As usual, its Chief Innovation Officer, Dr. Bert Jarreau, created a three-day extravaganza devoted to technology and innovation in local government.
The first day was a CIO Forum, the second day NACo’s Technology Innovation Summit and the final day a variety of NACO committees on IT, GIS, etc.
County government – especially the best ones – get too little recognition for their willingness to innovate, so I hope this post will provide some information about what county technologists and officials are discussing.
One main focus of the meetings was on government’s approach to technology and how it can be improved.
Jen Pahlka, founder and Executive Director of Code For America and former Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House, made the keynote presentations at both the CIO Forum on Friday and the Tech Summit on Saturday – and she was a hit in both.
She presented CfA’s seven “Principles for 21st Century Government”. The very first principle is that user experience comes before anything else. The use of technology is not, contrary to some internal views, about “solving” some problem that the government staff perceive.
She pointed out that the traditional lawyer-driven design of government services actually costs more than user-centric design. (I’ll have more on design in government in a future blog post.)
She referred to the approach taken by the United Kingdom’s Digital Service. For more about them, see https://gds.blog.gov.uk/about/ When she was in the White House, she took this as a model and helped create a US Digital Service.
She also discussed the importance of agile software development. She suggested that governments break up their big RFPs into several pieces so that smaller, more entrepreneurial and innovative firms can bid. This perhaps requires a bit more work on the part of government agencies, but they would be rewarded with lower costs and quicker results.
More generally she drew a distinction between the traditional approach that assumes all the answers – all the requirements for a computer system – are known ahead of time and an agile approach that encourages learning during the course of developing the software and changing the way an agency operates.
By way of example, she discussed why the Obamacare website failed. It used the traditional, waterfall method, not an agile, iterative approach. It didn’t involve real users testing and providing feedback on the website. And, despite the common wisdom to the contrary, the development project was too big and over-planned.
It was done in a way that was supposed to reduce risk, but instead was more risky. So she asked the NACo members to redefine risk, noting that yesterday’s risky approach is perhaps today’s prudent approach.
Helping along is the development of cloud computing. So Oakland County (Michigan) CIO Phil Bertolini has found that cloud computing is reducing government’s past dependence on big capital projects to deploy new technology, thus allowing for more day-to-day agility.
Finally Jen Pahlka suggested that government systems needed to be more open to integration with other systems. In a phrase, “share everything possible to share”. She showed an example where the government let Yelp use government restaurant inspection data and in turn learn about food problems from Yelp users. (And, of course, sharing includes not just data, but also software and analytics.)
In another illustration of open innovation in the public sector, Montgomery County, MD recently created its Thingstitute as an innovation laboratory where public services can be used as a test bed for the Internet of Things.
Even more examples were discussed in the IT Committee. Maricopa County, Arizona and Johnson County, Kansas, both now offer shared technology services to cities and nearby smaller counties. Rita Reynolds, CIO of the Pennsylvania County Commissioners Association, discussed the benefits of adopting the NIEM approach to data exchanges between governments.
The second major focus of these three days was cybersecurity.
Dr. Alan Shark, Executive Director of PTI, started off by revealing that latest surveys show security is the top concern for local government CIOs for the first time. Unfortunately, many don’t have the resources to react to the threat.
Actually, it’s more a reality than merely a threat. It was noted that, on average, it takes 229 days for organizations to find out they’ve been breached and that close to 100% have been attacked or hacked in some way. It’s obviously prudent to assume yours too has been hacked.
Jim Routh, Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) of Aetna insurance recommended a more innovative approach to responding to cybersecurity threats. He said CIOs should ignore traditional advice to try to reduce risk. Instead “take risks to manage risk”. (This was an interesting, if unintentional, echo of Jen Pahlka’s comments about software development.)
Along those lines, he said it is better to buy less mature cybersecurity products, in addition to or even instead of the well-known products. The reason is that the newer products address new issues better in an ever changing world and cost less.
There was a lot more, but these highlights provide plenty of evidence that at least the folks at NACo’s meetings are dealing with serious and important issues in a creative way.
© 2015 Norman Jacknis