The last six months haven’t been kind to the public’s perception of the Obama administration’s ability to apply technology to government. The administration’s first term that featured fitful but genuine progress in modernizing the federal government’s use of technology, from embracing online video and social media to adopting cloud computing, virtualization, mobile devices and open source software. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau earned praise from The Washington Post, Bloomberg View, and The New York Times for getting government technology right.
Last fall, however, the White House fell into a sinkhole of its own creation when the troubled launch of Healthcare.gov led to the novel scene of a President of the United States standing in the Rose Garden, apologizing for the performance of a website. After the big fix to Healthcare.gov by a quickly assembled trauma team got the site working, the administration has quietly moved towards information technology reforms, with the hopes of avoiding the next Healthcare.gov, considering potential shifts in hiring rules and forming a new development unit within the U.S. General Services agency.
Without improved results, however, those reforms won’t be sufficient to shift the opinion of millions of angry Americans. The White House and agencies will have to deliver on better digital government, from services to public engagement.
This week, the administration showed evidence that it has done so: The projects from the second round of the White House’s Presidential Innovation Fellows program are online, and they’re impressive. US CTO Todd Park and US GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini proudly described their accomplishments today:
Since the initiative launched two years ago, Presidential Innovation Fellows, along with their government teammates, have been delivering impressive results—at start-up velocity. Fellows have unleashed the power of open government data to spur the creation of new products and jobs; improved the ability of the Federal government to respond effectively to natural disasters; designed pilot projects that make it easier for new economy companies to do business with the Federal Government; and much more. Their impact is enormous.
These projects show that a relatively small number of talented fellows can work with and within huge institutions to rapidly design and launch platforms, Web applications and open data initiatives. The ambition and, in some cases, successful deployment of projects like RFPEZ, Blue Button Connect, OpenFDA, a GI Bill tool, Green Button, and a transcription tool at the Smithsonian Institute are a testament to the ability of public servants in the federal government to accomplish their missions using modern Web technologies and standards. (It’s also an answer to some of the harsh partisan criticism that the program faced at launch.)
In a blog post and YouTube video from deputy U.S. chief technology officer Jennifer Pahlka, the White House announced today they had started taking applications for a third round of fellows that would focus on 14 projects within three broad areas: veterans, open data and crowdsourcing:
- “Making Digital the Default: Building a 21st Century Veterans Experience: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is embarking on a bold new initiative to create a “digital by default” experience for our Nation’s veterans that provides better, faster access to services and complements the Department’s work to eliminate the disability claims backlog.
- Data Innovation: Unleashing the Power of Data Resources to Improve Americans’ Lives: This initiative aim to accelerate and expand the Federal Government’s efforts to liberate government data by making these information resources more accessible to the public and useable in computer readable forms, and to spur the use of those data by companies, entrepreneurs, citizens, and others to fuel the creation of new products, services, and jobs.
- By the People, for the People: Crowdsourcing to Improve Government: Crowdsourcing is a powerful way to organize people, mobilize resources, and gather information. This initiative will leverage technology and innovation to engage the American public as a strategic partner in solving difficult challenges and improving the way government works—from helping NASA find asteroid threats to human populations to improving the quality of U.S. patents to unlocking information contained in government records.”
Up until today, the fruits of the second class of fellows have been a bit harder to ascertain from the outside, as compared to the first round of five projects, like RFPEZ, where more iterative development was happening out in the open on Github. Now, the public can go see for themselves what has been developed on their behalf and judge for themselves whether it works or not, much as they have with Healthcare.gov.
I’m particularly fond of the new Web application at the Smithsonian Institute, which enables the public to transcribe handwritten historic documents and records. It’s live at Transcription.si.edu, if you’d like to pitch in, you can join more than three thousand volunteers who have already transcribed and reviewed more than 13,000 historic and scientific records. It’s a complement to the citizen archivist platform that the U.S. National Archives announced in 2011 and subsequently launched. Both make exceptional use of the Internet’s ability to distribute and scale a huge project around the country, enabling public participation in the creation of a digital commons in a way that was not possible before.
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