Biden Is Wisely Betting on Public Interest Technology to Transform Government, but He Must Do More to Meet This Moment

The creation of the COVID-19 vaccines was a medical marvel. Scientists collaborated across the globe using cutting-edge approaches to craft novel antidotes to a world-crippling disease, in quarantine, all in less than a year.

And then when it came time for Americans to register for that miracle shot, state signup websites crashed. Online wait times stretched for days. Tiny bits of government code undermined a historic human accomplishment.

Thankfully, many of the vaccination process kinks are getting ironed out. But there is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has once again laid bare our fragile public service infrastructure, shining a spotlight on just how little capacity or will our governments have to consistently deploy the technology society needs to operate during and after a crisis. As a country, we used to bet big on the technology of the time from electricity to automobiles. Today our challenges call for an expansion of that commitment.

The ongoing argument over what counts as “infrastructure” is a telling insight into why we find ourselves in this situation time and again. We’ve disinvested in infrastructure — not just physical facilities, but systems that society relies on. These are social systems and especially technological systems that for far too long, government leaders treated as an afterthought — an engineering challenge to be contracted out to outsiders and subordinates.

Concurrently over the last 10 years, technology has threaded itself through almost every part of modern life, from telehealth to ordering dinner and everything in between.

So what caused this disconnect? Simply: a serious lack of tech leaders across government — individuals who understand technological systems and who can ensure tech innovations are state of the art, thoughtfully and equitably built, and deployed and regulated for public benefit.

The recent cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline, the initial failure of and vaccine signup disasters are just symptoms of the same disease — a misguided perspective that considers technology, policy and society in different silos. This siloing extends from civic tech to the bleeding edge of artificial intelligence, where we must put the human impact at the heart of our planning or risk a catastrophic race to the bottom. To build back better, the Biden administration must seize the opportunity to not only treat these symptoms, but the underlying cause.

This is the moment for bold thinking about how modern government technologists can contribute to equitable outcomes and, more broadly, shared prosperity. The emerging field of public interest technology can help us cross the bridge to the 21st century.

Public interest technology fuses knowledge of the way technology works with an understanding of the ethical, legal and societal concerns that shape our world. The perspectives of historically marginalized groups — including communities of color, indigenous communities, immigrants, people with disabilities, women and others — are essential to making technology that advances justice and equity.

As one of the early leaders of the Ford Foundation’s push to invest in public interest technologists throughout academia, civil society and the business world, I have seen how far the field has developed over the past decade, from the path-breaking work of the Public Interest Technology University Network, now 46 universities strong, to the critical strides of U.S. Digital Response.

USDR started just one year ago to respond to the challenges of this pandemic and now is powered by a community of more than 6,600 pro bono technologists who have cumulatively supported 200+ government and nonprofit partners on everything from COVID testing, to voting access and unemployment insurance.

This is the skill, enthusiasm and progress we need to see continually professionalized inside government. Businesses already sense this opportunity. The pandemic is driving a govtech investment boom. But tech tools are not enough. We also need creative and principled government technologists who can look at problems holistically.

In a world defined by technology — and, increasingly, massive tech corporations, and sometimes even state actors that own and operate that technology — we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to invest in new leaders who can help set new rules of the road.

It’s encouraging to see the Biden administration bring in some of the most thoughtful innovators in the field for key roles, such as Alondra Nelson, Robin Carnahan, Natalie Evans Harris and Eric Hysen. Their experience in public interest tech will be critical to ensure public services are more equitable and accessible. They will also anticipate and forestall downstream effects that could do more harm than good.

Things are changing in the right direction. But one step forward has been met with two steps back. The American Rescue Plan included $1 billion for a Tech Modernization Fund, $650 million for cybersecurity and $200 million for the U.S. Digital Service, a White House office that provides consulting services to federal agencies on technology issues. While significant, it’s far less than the $10 billion originally included in the package, and not enough to meet this moment.

The Biden administration and Congress must do more. We need to carefully rethink the permanent new public interest technology roles necessary for government to function. There must be a central figure or figures in the highest levels of government who are mission driven and empowered enough to push through the government inertia to get to systemic reforms. We need a deep bench of technologists who are driven to make sure these changes advance not only efficiency and responsiveness but also justice and equity. Biden made a strong choice in naming Clare Martorana — a veteran of the U.S. Digital Service — as chief information officer. It’s up to the White House and Congress to ensure she and other public interest technologists have the resources and leverage they need to drag the federal government into the modern era.

In 2021, technology is threaded through every aspect of how the government serves or underserves the public. In the face of a once-in-a-century crisis, recurring unforced technical errors like the mismanaged deployment of vaccines costs people their lives. We can’t afford to be here ever again. Public interest technology offers a solution — to move fast, to fix things and to ensure the government can do its job.


Jenny Toomey is the international program director for technology and society at the Ford Foundation.

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