New study details technology deficit in government and civil society

stem-talent-federal-agenciesThe botched re-launch of Healthcare.gov led many observers unfamiliar with the endemic issues in government information technology to wonder how the first Internet president produced the government’s highest Internet failure. The Obama administration endured a winter full of well-deserved criticism, some informed, some less, regarding what went wrong at Healthcare.gov, from bad management to poor technology choices and implementation, agency insularity and political sensitivity at the White House.

While “Obama’s trauma team” successfully repaired the site, enabling millions to enroll in the health insurance plans offered in the online marketplace, the problems the debacle laid bare in human resources and IT procurement are now receiving well-deserved attention. While the apparent success of “the big fix” has taken some urgency away from Congress or the administration to address how the federal government can avoid another Healthcare.gov, the underlying problems remain. Although lawmakers have introduced legislation to create a “Government Digital Office” and the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to reform aspects of federal IT, neither has gotten much traction in the Senate. In the meantime, hoping to tap into the success of the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Services team, the U.S. General Services Administration has stood up a new IT services unit, 18F, which officials hope will help government technology projects fail fast instead of failing big.

Into this mix comes  a new report from Friedman Consulting, commissioned by the Ford and MacArthur Foundations. Notably, the report also addresses the deficit of technology talent in the nonprofit sector and other parts of civil society, where such expertise and capacity could make demonstrable improvements to operations and performance. The full 51 page report is well worth reading, for those interested in the topic, but for those limited by time, here are the key findings:

1) The Current Pipeline Is Insufficient: the vast majority of interviewees indicated that there is a severe paucity of individuals with technical skills in computer science, data science, and the Internet or other information technology expertise in civil society and government. In particular, many of those interviewed noted that existing talent levels fail to meet current needs to develop, leverage, or understand technology.
2) Barriers to Recruitment and Retention Are Acute: many of those interviewed said that substantial barriers thwart the effective recruitment and retention of individuals with the requisite skills in government and civil society. Among the most common barriers mentioned were those of compensation, an inability to pursue groundbreaking work, and a culture that is averse to hiring and utilizing potentially disruptive innovators.
3) A Major Gap Between The Public Interest and For-Profit Sectors Persists: as a related matter, interviewees discussed superior for-profit recruitment and retention models. Specifically the for-profit sector was perceived as providing both more attractive compensation (especially to young talent) and fostering a culture of innovation, openness, and creativity that was seen as more appealing to technologists and innovators.
4) A Need to Examine Models from Other Fields: interviewees noted significant space to develop new models to improve the robustness of the talent pipeline; in part, many existing models were regarded as unsustainable or incomplete. Interviewees did, however, highlight approaches from other fields that could provide relevant lessons to help guide investments in improving this pipeline.
5) Significant Opportunity for Connection and Training: despite consonance among those interviewed that the pipeline was incomplete, many individuals indicated the possibility for improved and more systematic efforts to expose young technologists to public interest issues and connect them to government and civil society careers through internships, fellowships, and other training and recruitment tools.
6) Culture Change Necessary: the culture of government and civil society – and its effects on recruitment and other bureaucratic processes – was seen as a
vital challenge that would need to be addressed to improve the pipeline. This view manifested through comments that government and civil society organizations needed to become more open to utilizing technology and adopting a mindset of experimentation and disruption.

And here’s the conclusion:

Based on this research, the findings of the report are clear: technology talent is a key need in government and civil society, but the current state of the pipeline is inadequate to meet that need. The bad news is that existing institutions and approaches are insufficient to build and sustain this pipeline, particularly in the face of
sharp for-profit competition. The good news is that stakeholders interviewed identified a range of organizations and practices that, at scale, have the potential to make an enormous difference. While the problem is daunting, the stakes are high. It will be critical for civil society and government to develop sustainable and
effective pathways for the panoply of technologists and experts who have the skills to create truly 21st century institutions.

For those interested, the New America Foundation will be hosting a forum on the technology deficit in Washington, DC, on April 29th. The event will be livestreamed and archived.

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