This year has the potential to be a positive, transformational year for government at all levels.
You’d be forgiven for scoffing at that sentence. With a divided Congress, many are ready to call 2023 a wash and set their sights on 2024. But from our vantage point in the world of public interest technology, that would be a mistake. We’ve never been as poised to drive meaningful, lasting change in government.
It’s taking place at every level of government — federal, state and local — as a result of three key factors: Increased capacity for tech talent in government jobs, digital delivery being written directly into policy, and government systems changing right before our eyes. The potential impact is enormous and will be felt in policies large and small — remaking the social safety net, transforming how we file taxes, modernizing infrastructure and beyond.
First let’s look at talent: We’re in an interesting moment in the private tech industry, with layoffs putting tens of thousands of talented technologists in the job market. Many are choosing to look for career opportunities in the public sector. In mid-January, the Tech to Gov coalition expected about 250 technologists to attend a job fair — instead, they saw almost 2,000. Some attendees had been laid off the day before and were immediately considering public service. The influx of tech talent into government has the power to transform policy making and implementation alike.
Our optimism comes not just from the candidate market but what’s already happening inside government. In recent years we’ve seen huge strides in building more technical capacity into government teams — with longtime public servants embracing, hiring and supporting digital experts. Many have been in government for decades, trying to solve problems for families, workers, and businesses through workarounds for bad tech and outdated systems. They know how our government works better than anyone, and they see the value of what customer-focused processes supported by effective tech can do. And now they have the proof points to say: “We can and should demand better.”
We’re seeing governments at all levels become more and more human-centered in their approach. They’re putting the needs of the people who use government services at the center of program design, not bureaucratic requirements and necessities. Conversations about tech aren’t just about backend tools but about whether they will provide an easy, straightforward, respectful experience for government’s “customers” — the American public. We’ve been excited to see the ways that the federal executive order on customer experience has been enacted, like in the design and rollout of online portals to apply for student loan forgiveness or order free COVID-19 tests. We encourage public officials to keep building on this work.
We’re also optimistic about the impact these technologists will have on state and federal policy and implementation. Critically for this moment, more technologists are being hired directly into congressional roles than ever before, serving across member offices, key committees, and in leadership.
Several years ago, it was common to see hearings where lawmakers were questioning tech executives without understanding how their companies function. But it’s time to retire the narrative that Congress is not smart on tech. Compare the 2018 hearings with Mark Zuckerberg to the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s appearance in 2021, and you’ll see a much more sophisticated interrogation of a more complex set of issues. Look behind the scenes, and you will understand a key difference: Members of Congress have prioritized hiring for technical knowledge, and a number of senior policy staff on Capitol Hill have deep experience and training in technology.
This expertise has huge implications for the way that policies are crafted and passed in Washington. Last year’s CHIPS and Science Act was one of the most technologically savvy pieces of legislation ever written. There are countless opportunities to build technical implementation into lawmaking, in bills that go far beyond the realm of tech and data.
Which brings us to our final reason for optimism: that our government systems are changing.
Everyone who works at the intersection of government and technology is in the business of systems change. We know that changing government can feel like turning an aircraft carrier, where progress is measured in inches rather than miles, and it can take years to see tangible results.
The public interest tech movement was started over a decade ago to transform the way government serves the public, and we’re now seeing this effort blossom. Some of the best examples include the House of Representatives launching a digital service, or introducing a bipartisan bill to create a National Digital Reserve Corps, or the Senate’s proposed State and Local Digital Services Act. These may not seem like huge wins to the average person. But for those of us in this movement, they are monumental.
A stalemate is expected in Washington this year. But there are also high-impact, high-opportunity areas where bringing talented technologists into government to work towards policy implementation and modernizing systems will have huge payoffs.
It was recently announced that the COVID-19 public health emergency will end in May. Government has been able to use this crisis to experiment like never before — in areas like text messaging to communicate with program beneficiaries or taking a hard look at burdensome and inefficient processes like requiring paper forms for benefits renewals. They should take these learnings and use them to strengthen our systems and our policies. It’s a challenge that breeds an opportunity to invest in the long term.
If we can show what’s possible, we can prove that addressing issues like climate change, infrastructure, and economic recovery and growth with technology at scale today will pay dividends for generations to come.
We’re calling on every decision maker in government to be bold — to see this moment of opportunity for what it is, and to use their political capital to act. The talent is there, the policies are waiting to be written, and the systems are ready to serve the American people. And the entire public interest tech community is rooting for your success and ready to help.
Amanda Renteria is chief executive officer of Code for America; Travis Moore the founder and executive director of Tech Congress; and Jennifer Anastasoff is the executive director of the Tech Talent Project.