In President Barak Obama’s opening remarks at the White House Frontiers Conference, he made it clear that the fast and furious iterations of tech in Silicon Valley could never be the norm for innovation within the confines of government.
While most of us are excited for our cities to upgrade to the latest, greatest tech, it isn’t as simple as identifying the best technology and just getting it done.
That being said, innovation within government and by government is happening faster and on a much broader, global scale that anyone expected despite the barriers that currently exist. In fact, recent research by e.Republic indicates that the state and local government spend on GovTech for 2016 is $ 99.8 Billion.
As the industries of CivicTech and GovTech begin to mature, it becomes even more important that we understand what barriers prevent progress, why they exist, and what can be done to move forward within the constraints that should remain in place within the industry.
GovTech Innovation: Data and Privacy
Along with the often protracted, arduous procurement cycles that can result in an agency waiting months or even years to begin work on an innovation project, government agencies are also expected to serve all citizens – something not required by most other startups who can focus on the easiest demographics to serve in order to quickly scale.
But one of the most significant barriers to innovation that can result in higher costs and longer development cycles is the expectation that government technology will be safe to use and will appropriately protect the rights and privacy of the citizens interacting with that technology.
In short, we have different expectations within our social contracts between government and citizen as those we are willing to entertain when interacting with private enterprise.
Most of us are surprisingly ready to trade away our private information in exchange for free access to a company’s technology that lets us connect with our friends or interact with the rest of the world in some new way – all the while trusting that our information won’t end up in the wrong hands or used in ways that we don’t want.
User Data as a Commodity
While most social media user agreements provide fairly carte blanche permissions about what can be done with user information, several companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram recently came under fire with the ACLU when it was revealed that user information was being used by a third party to provide authorities with information about citizen’s activities such as participating in civil protests.
To be clear, users voluntarily posted the details made available to third parties. But sharing that data to a company that might want to sell protestors a higher quality protest sign is not at all the same as sharing that data to track behavior as a citizen.
Most of the social media platforms have since revoked access to that data to the company in question, but Facebook’s 2016 3Q earnings report of $ 7.01 Billion in revenue is proof that our private data is a highly valuable commodity.
Trust as a Commodity
But within our social contract with government, trust is the most valuable commodity, and thus, the treatment of our private data requires a very different approach in the development of technologies and tools for government.
This doesn’t mean the industry isn’t profitable; it is simply a different process with different outcomes than those pursued within other sectors. I was invited to speak at the recent State of GovTech conference which brought together 100 venture capitalists, government officials, technologists, businesspeople and nonprofit representatives to discuss the emerging trends in the industry. One of the takeaways from the conference was that many of the companies on the GovTech 100 list had found ways to build profitable, scalable tech businesses within this new industry.
Our company was among those recently surveyed about the state of open data. The surveys were used within a report to be shared with the next Presidential transition team. The report will deliver invaluable insight into the possibilities of what the next phase of open data and government innovation might look like.
President Obama is right – within government, we cannot do things the same way Silicon Valley startups can. But we have already witnessed exciting progress that is changing the way we interact with our government. Our next President has the enviable opportunity of using these lessons learned to ensure that progress continues and expands to more cities, more agencies, and more people.