COVID-19 has already had crushing personal and professional impacts for countless Americans, and the time is now to accelerate our recovery by reimagining the delivery of public services.
The COVID-19 pandemic has unquestionably been the most significant social and economic shock to our country since the two World Wars and the intervening depression. In addition to the over 2.5 Million Americans who have contracted the horrible virus and the 125,000 who have tragically perished, over 40 million of our fellow citizens have applied for unemployment benefits in just the past sixteen weeks, millions of families have tapped the last of their savings, and we are all practicing new forms of distanced social interaction with our friends, families and professional colleagues.
This pandemic will continue to have implications at every level of society, and every institution will be impacted. Of course, the largest institution of all – government – will be no exception. Positioned at the center of the coming post-COVID societal transformation, our municipal, state, and federal government agencies will play a critical role in every aspect of helping us define our “new normal” – from healthcare and transportation, to education, social services, public safety, and labor, to name just a few.
One of the impediments to our government’s success in this new era is the state of current government technology infrastructure – decades-old systems that aren’t adaptable to this new reality. One only need look at the recent crashes of the Small Business Administration’s processing systems for loan applicants of the Payroll Protection Program as the latest example of legacy government systems that aren’t just past their prime because there is a new whiz-bang technology out there. No, their expiration date has long passed because these systems are hurting the very people they are supposed to be helping.
For nearly a decade, I have been part of a growing movement of government employees, technologists, investors, non-profits, and citizens collectively working to address these challenges. Back in 2009, Tim O’Reilly, helped marshal us all – in the way only Tim can – by publishing papers, convening the brightest minds and coalescing ideas into action to shape the concept of what came to be known as Gov 2.0. This next-generation 2.0 government would leverage the cloud and open data, incorporate modern software development practices, adopt user-centered design and uplevel skill development within government to create a platform that enabled people inside and out of government to innovate.
And there has indeed been a tremendous amount of progress. Operating a venture fund exclusively focused on investing in startups that modernize the operations of government, I have had the privilege to be deeply involved with twenty-five startups that today work with over 30,000 government agencies across the country. They have partnered with thousands of forward-looking government employee early-adopters of new technologies, and the result has been nothing short of inspiring. A wide-array of critical public services has been completely transformed including law enforcement, adoptions, economic development, health data science, public notices, permitting, as well as the not-so-sexy internal operations such as procurement, workflow management, budgeting, pensions, regulation management, and the reduction of technical debt, to name just a few.
As we enter this new pandemic era, the time has come to uplevel government once again. It’s time for Gov 3.0.
The foundation of this new chapter in public services delivery will be resiliency. Public services now need to be able to withstand the external shocks of forces much larger than just the sinewave of technology replacement cycles. Rather, government will need to, for example:
- reimagine the way in which it delivers services to account for social distancing
- redesign departments and employee workflows to incorporate remote work
- develop new approaches to community law enforcement
- launch radically improved “digital front doors” to access public services
- turbo-charge the rapid integration of siloed data sources to create inter-agency systems of record and “data liquidity”
- develop a deep competence in data science to redesign everything from the seemingly mundane way our traffic signals move us to gaining new insights of the social determinants of health so we can redesign public policies
- and, yes, even tackle controversial concepts like contact tracing so that government can be better prepared for the next pandemic
The private sector is already starting to move in the direction of resiliency foundation. One need only look to Amazon’s most recent quarterly earnings announcement wherein CEO Jeff Bezos told investors that the entirety of the expected $4 billion profit of the coming quarter would be invested in creating, among other things, “less efficient process paths that better allow for effective social distancing.” as well as constructing its own employee COVID-19 test centers, redesigning its shift work schedules, etc. For Amazon – a company known for its singular focus on hyper-efficiency – to make a statement like this, is a “canary in the coal mine” of the coming wave of the private sectors’ prioritization of resiliency over efficiency.
So, how can Gov 3.0 become a reality? While I am a “startup guy” and so my bias will be obvious (wait for it… it’s coming below) I want to stress what I said earlier – nothing in the evolution of government happens without the interaction of a community. Gov 3.0 should happen through a collaborative effort of government employees, for-profit companies, non-profit entities, and citizens.
That said, the agility of startups is needed more now than ever. The best startups, and the entrepreneurial teams that run them, have had resiliency baked into their DNA from day one. I believe startups have a unique contribution to make in the development of Gov 3.0.
Many govtech startups are already demonstrating the value of their partnership with government by rapidly iterating “quick-impact” solutions to meet the immediate resiliency-needs thrust upon us by the COVID-19 crisis: Merit is bringing digital infrastructure for credentialing to state agencies, verified skills to employers, and training and employment opportunities to workers. MySidewalk is creating economic recovery data analysis engines for communities across the country to calculate the total impact of this pandemic on residents. In the past eight weeks, seventeen cities adopted Bludot’s open platform that maps essential local businesses and critical local resources, ensuring community resiliency. Glimpse’s Return On Instruction calculator is proving invaluable for school districts that now need to rapidly overhaul their upcoming fiscal year budget. AdastraGov’s software for labor costing, union negotiations, and position budgeting provides the critical data that enables government agencies to determine, with empathy, fair employee contract revisions or which employees, sadly, need to be furloughed.
And while the astute reader will note the aforementioned companies are all in the Govtech Fund’s portfolio, I’m not mentioning them just to “talk my book.” They’re doing just fine without my “PR”. It’s just that I work most closely with these folks every day, so I know them best. There are indeed hundreds of great govtech startups out there equally committed to improving public services, and they will all be part of the Gov 3.0 resiliency solution.
COVID-19 has already had crushing personal and professional impacts for countless Americans, and the time is now to accelerate our recovery by reimagining the delivery of public services. Our municipal, state, and federal government agencies will need to rapidly adopt technologies that have at their foundation the key element that will better prepare us for the next series of external shocks: resiliency.
It’s time for Gov 3.0.