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Old Ways, New Days: The Public Sector’s Delayed Adoption of Technological Innovation

September 29, 2019
Over the past decade, technology has profoundly changed the way we live. From drone delivery systems to autonomous vehicles, our current society operates at a scale inconceivable to even the greatest innovators of past. However, with the rapid onset of technological development, questions arise regarding how the government should regulate new and unknown risks.

For instance, the security of citizens has become a huge issue especially in the context of big data and its role in marketing and advertising. Automation and the use of robots have brought reduced costs and increased efficiency for organizations but also created concerns for systemic job-displacement. Ultimately, there is no stopping or slowing the rate at which innovation will continue to disrupt industries. Still, in the midst of all this change, it becomes important to ask, must the federal government undergo a fundamental overhaul of its processes or are there innovations that it can adopt to help it keep up and respond appropriately?

Some argue that the government cannot (or will not) do the latter because increased efficiency comes hand-in-hand with a smaller budget.[1] Yet, in 2017, $94.1 billion were spent on sustaining aging software, rather than swapping them out for new, higher-value ones like analytics and artificial intelligence.[2] Agencies have been paying premiums for more experienced employees who know antiquated programming languages like COBOL and Natural when they can hire new graduates with more modern knowledge at lower starting salaries. Other organizations including businesses and universities have moved towards using and teaching C++, Java, and R. The increase of students with bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science since 2009 means that it will become increasingly easier and cheaper to find employees qualified to meet modern computing standards–if agencies are willing to take the upfront costs of revamping their technological infrastructure to attract talent.[3]

Image: S&amp;E bachelor&#039;s degrees, by field since 200 to 2015. Source: Nationa...Image: S&E bachelor's degrees, by field since 200 to 2015. Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Completions Survey; National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, WebCASPAR database

The public sector may have also been slow to deploy innovation because of its central mission: to break up monopolies and prevent itself from becoming one.[4] Therefore, it cannot involve itself as a participant—only as a regulator—in the data wars that occur in the private sector. However, this resistance may lead the government to turn to the private sector for information on its citizens, a reliance that is neither sustainable nor suitable for a governing institution. Ironically, much of today’s most impactful technology was originally federally backed .[5] Why is it, then, that the government can drive innovation, but is unable to feed the results back into its system?

The standard protocol for onboarding new technology remains at the heart of the problem. When purchasing new software, the government works with organizations that abide by its strict guidelines to become a government contractor. Since there are few who meet these standards, contractors who have done poorly in the past are often, nonetheless, hired again. Furthermore, with a culture of hiring “experienced” contractors, local governments often repeat the mistakes of others. For example, although Oracle failed to launch HealthCare.gov in 2013, it still received millions of federal dollars per year after the debacle.[6] Slow bureaucratic processes and a preference for large-scale purchases further exacerbate the disconnect between the federal government and the private sector. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spent 3 years preparing for the digitization of its immigration forms, only to find that their “new” platforms had already become outdated.[7]

Another issue is the lack of established, technologically advanced human capital within the government. Tight budgets and the use of outdated programming languages have caused a greater reliance on temporary contractors. Based on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s federal workforce data, in 2017, for every IT employee under 30 years old, there were 4.5 over 60 (which is 2.5 times the ratio from a decade ago).[8] The gap only seems like it will widen as more technology-focused graduates turn to the tempting incentives that come with the private sector over the public’s slow hiring process and lower wages. At the current rate, the government will only fall deeper into its self-enforcing cycle of antiquity.

Some local governments are already trying to adopt technological change. For many activities that require less human discretion, technology has brought results. Examples include payment systems, procurement, and issuance of birth certificates.[9] Furthermore, there is already talk about using drones to monitor hotspots and track criminal activity.[10] Efforts have also been made on a federal level: the establishment of the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act in December 2017 enables agencies to move towards cloud services and to improve their cyber defenses as well as save tax-payers’ dollars in the long-run.[11] The public, however, is still awaiting the results of this new bill and the question of whether current responses to technology such as the MGT Act is enough to change the tide remains.

Image: Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act. Source: House Oversight and Refo...Image: Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act. Source: House Oversight and Reform Committee.

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


  [1] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2019/01/18/why-hasnt-technology-improved-government-effectiveness/

  [2] https://deloitte.wsj.com/cmo/2018/04/20/modernizing-government-technology-act-an-impetus-for-change/

  [3] https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsb20181/report/sections/higher-education-in-science-and-engineering/undergraduate-education-enrollment-and-degrees-in-the-united-states

  [4] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2019/01/18/why-hasnt-technology-improved-government-effectiveness/

  [5] https://time.com/4089171/mariana-mazzucato/

  [6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/hawaiis-false-alert-shows-the-sorry-state-of-government-technology/2018/01/19/59486fa2-fbcb-11e7-a46b-a3614530bd87_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d0d05d715510

  [7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/hawaiis-false-alert-shows-the-sorry-state-of-government-technology/2018/01/19/59486fa2-fbcb-11e7-a46b-a3614530bd87_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d0d05d715510

  [8] https://www.nextgov.com/cio-briefing/2017/12/governments-struggle-hire-young-tech-talent-worse-you-thought/144225/

  [9] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2019/01/18/why-hasnt-technology-improved-government-effectiveness/

  [10] https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/desouza.pdf (Page 3, 9)

  [11] https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/M-18-12.pdf


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