The Government Wants To Strengthen Its Technology-Start With Jobs
The General Services The administration is with the lesser-known weapons of the U.S. government, but there is something strange to come. Owns or leases more than 370 million square feet of offices and other facilities for other federal agencies, and also provides vehicles and IT services. Its tech support to the government was a particular priority in President Biden’s selection to head the agency’s Robin Carnahan.
Carnahan, confirmed by the Senate in June, previously worked at 18F, a tech group formed within the Obama administration’s GSA to modernize government technology. In a conversation with Tom Simonite, he discussed plans to streamline online access to government services and attract more technological talent. An edited transcript follows.
Many people became more reliant on the internet during the pandemic. Does this make it all the more clear that digital government needs to improve?
It has, because everyone sees it so clearly. After Congress quickly passed the multitrillion-dollar CARES Act that funds unemployment benefits, governors need to explain why people don’t get it. Technology is the obstacle – this digital infrastructure that has not been used for years.
At the same time there is a lot of investment from Congress. [The Covid-19 stimulus package included $1 billion for technology modernization.] It’s exciting to have both energy and money at the same time.
Where do you plan to invest?
It makes sense to make a big bet on services that are shared between multiple agencies, such as login and identity recognition. GSA has a service called Login.gov, which is already used by 30 million people. It just got a huge investment from the modernization fund and we hope next year we can reach that number of 100 million.
About 27 different agencies are already using Login.gov – some quite large, like Social Security – and we’ve talked a lot more. You can imagine how much better it would be if you had one login for all your government interactions.
People log into all different online services. Why is it more difficult to build for the government?
A big difference in government is that you have to create systems that work for everyone, not just those with good credit scores or with active bank accounts. Many people who are most in need of government services don’t have that.
There is other infrastructure we can take advantage of as a government: The U.S. Postal Service and the Veterans Administration have locations across the country. These are federal agencies we can work with to verify identity for people who need to appear in person.
Some state governments, such as California, adopted facial recognition to prove identity for services such as unemployment benefits. But there have been reports of accuracy problems, and privacy concerns.
The automation we can get artificial intelligence something we will use when it is appropriate, but we will be careful about it and understand what the biases are.
You have no concrete plans?
One reason government technology has a bad reputation is that the most talented technologists in general work in the industry. Groups like 18F, where you used to work, and the US Digital Services, put tech workers on temporary government “tours of duty”. What else can you do to attract star techies?
We need a lot of different technologists: people with experience, but also people who want to make government their career. We just announced a program called Digital Corps for early career people who want to use their government technology skills. We didn’t have a good on-ramp for that before.
The Biden administration is very focused on this because it is very clear that poor delivery is drowned out by good policy. In order to deliver anything, there must be a technological talent inside at the beginning of the discussion, which will not be transferred in the end.