Sean Boots

Technology, public services, and people. But mostly people.

Bridging the technology-policy gap

Nicole Wong wrote a great piece last month titled, “Building a Tech Policy Movement”. It captures something that really resonates: there’s an urgent need for people who are fluent in both technology and public policy, and a real shortage of those people.

Back in 2017, I gave a presentation at a Policy Ignite workshop titled “Bridging the technology-policy gap”. It made the argument – as anyone reading this will be familiar with – that technology is changing more quickly than governments can keep pace with, and that citizen expectations are changing with it. Nicole’s article makes a detailed case for why this matters:

The need for modern technology in government is clear. Last year, our federal government spent almost $96 billion on IT. According to federal agency Chief Information Officers, about 60% of the projects today are at risk of being either over budget or behind schedule. The Social Security Administration, which pays $1 trillion in social security and disability benefits to 70 million Americans, relies on 60 million lines of COBOL, a computer language that was created in 1959. That is not merely inefficient — preventing us from taking advantage of things like open source databases and the scaling capabilities of cloud computing — it is clearly unsustainable. There are actually a diminishing number of programmers in the workforce who even know how to maintain this code. And that failure of our infrastructure and the modernization of our tech workforce puts the benefits of 70 million Americans at risk.

Our technology priorities reflect our policy agenda. If we can order a gluten-free chocolate cake on our mobile phone while sitting in our living room and have it delivered in an hour, then we should be able to help a single mother get food stamps without having to take a day off of work to fill out paperwork and stand in line at some government office with limited hours.

Addressing this requires people who are well-equipped to dive into deep conversations about technology implementation, and about public policy and government operations. What continues to stand out is how few formal paths there are to end up at the intersection of technology and public policy.

In my case, I ended up here by accident: growing up interested in political science in a family of engineers and teachers, and being introduced to computer programming by my older brother when I started high school. Studying public policy, and then working professionally as a software developer and product designer. In my current work today – working in policy on a digital services team – I’m perpetually grateful for the people and things that set me on this path. Friends and colleagues working in the same field have similar stories: chance introductions, fluke, or circumstances that connected them from technology to policy work, or vice-versa.

Very few academic or professional programs make this connection deliberately. In Canada, the number of public administration researchers working on digital government or technology topics is incredibly small. Prof. Amanda Clarke at Carleton and Prof. Justin Longo at Johnson Shoyama do stand-out work. Outside of public admin, a handful of outstanding professors do research on topics that intersect with policy and technology: Prof. Elizabeth Dubois, in uOttawa’s communications department; Prof. Tracey Lauriaut, in Carleton’s school of journalism and communication; Prof. Ron Deibert at the Citizen Lab in Toronto. A small number of digital practitioners teach courses on the topic: Sameer Vasta, at the University of Waterloo; David Eaves, at Harvard Kennedy School in the United States; and Gabe Sawhney and the Code for Canada team at Ryerson’s school of continuing education.

The courses that do exist are, by and large, recent developments. Most public policy grad school programs (including the one I attended) do not have any technology- or public sector IT-related courses. Computer science courses, likewise, do not seem to have any courses on how government works. Outside of the few possibilities above, no one is teaching public policy students how to be technology-savvy, or teaching computer scientists and IT specialists how to be government-savvy.

In a recent (excellent) publication on digital government units, Prof. Amanda Clarke points out how little public administration research has focused on these teams or digital government topics more broadly:

Outside a few recent and important contributions, the public management research community has failed to respond to these questions. To date, we know very little about what Digital Government Units are, whether they are worthy pursuits for governments struggling to reinvent themselves for a digital age, and most importantly, how they are altering, and could alter, public sector governance more broadly.

Public sector organizations the world over are struggling to keep pace with the pressures of governing in a digital context. Digital service failures abound, and citizen trust in government continues to wane … it is no longer acceptable for the public management community to ignore digital technologies and their role in contemporary governance.

The silver lining on all of this is that things are beginning to change; the researchers and practitioners above are connecting technology and policy in new and important ways. A new generation of public policy students (whose lives have been immersed in technology since childhood) is joining the public service. The importance of this work is being more and more widely recognized across governments.

And maybe most importantly, it’s fulfilling and exciting work. Being someone who helps bridge the gap means being part of fascinating conversations every day – about both technology and policy. It means helping deliver better services, that improve people’s lives and well-being. And it means reacting to technology-driven changes to society, and helping make sure that governments remain relevant and effective.

Nicole’s article closes by saying that, as technologists (and, I would add, as public policy practitioners),

…it is our responsibility to care for our future, to insist on being part of its development, and to take seriously technology’s role in our lives, our communities, and our governments.

If you’re interested in chatting about this – or about how to get started in the technology-policy field – don’t hesitate to reach out!