Four lessons for government tech leaders
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Four lessons for government tech leaders

Jessica Twentyman — September 2018

Former US Government CTO and Google executive Megan Smith shares insight into succeeding in public service IT.

Government IT is often thought of as trailing behind the private sector, but Megan Smith who was appointed as the US CTO in 2014 is keen to inspire the industy’s IT leaders. Throughout her tenure, which continued until the end of the Obama Administration in early 2017, she spearheaded federal government efforts on grassroots work with local communities to support innovation and opportunity creation, and pushed with great tenacity for more diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). As part of that drive, she created a web page on the White House website devoted to “the untold history of women in science and technology.”

Today, Smith is CEO of Shift7, a company driving wider participation in technology, with a view to tapping into what she calls “the collective genius of community.” At the same time, she is a current board member at MIT and a cofounder, alongside Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, of the Malala Fund, which aims to get girls around the world into education. Here she shares her key messages to government tech leaders around the world:

1. Focus on tech-team diversity

Smith is an evangelist on the Tech Jobs Tour, an initiative that, by its own description, is “hustling to create a workforce that reflects the diversity of America.” This resonates strongly with Smith, who believes that there should be no barriers to participation, especially when it comes to government technology, which after all, should exist to serve the public. “If you’re building a [government] tech team, build a diverse team that represents your citizens,” she says. A diverse tech team is more likely to be more motivated to effect change and one that knows from experience which projects to prioritize. “Technology is for anything you can apply it to,” she says. “We’ve got a bunch of problems in the world, but we’ve got a lot of talent too – people who might apply technology to an agenda they set for themselves, rather than the agenda that’s previously been set by others about what and who tech is for.”

2. Keep pushing on open data

Before Smith took the role, the US CTO position was filled by Aneesh Chopra (2009-2012) and then Todd Park (2012-2014). The drive to open up government datasets to the public began under Chopra and was carried forwards by his successors. By the end of the Obama presidency, according to Smith, around 200,000 federal datasets had been opened up. Today, around the country, local government agencies and individual citizens are working with open data in order to identify problems in their communities and build effective plans for tackling them. The City of Los Angeles has been a leader here, she adds, with Mayor Eric Garcetti’s team encouraging universities and community colleges in the area to use open datasets in their teaching programmes. This, Smith believes, could encourage more students to pursue government jobs after graduation, as well as give them valuable analytic skills in whatever career they pursue.

3. Bring in the tech industry to help

The Presidential Innovation Fellows programme is an initiative that began under Todd Park, continued under Smith, and is still in operation today. It pairs technologists and innovators from the private sector with top civil servants to work on issues such as child welfare, healthcare, veteran affairs and smart farming. It’s a win-win situation for both sides, she says: the Fellows get a better understanding of the challenges that government IT teams face and a chance to serve their country, and the civil servants benefit from advice on how to spend limited budgets more wisely, negotiate smarter deals with vendors and get complex IT projects moving faster. “Just busting someone into the room with these kinds of skills and experience can be very, very meaningful in terms of outcomes,” says Smith. “It’s a chance for government IT to make dramatic improvements quickly, in its capacity to deliver better services to citizens at lower cost.”

4. Keep a watchful eye on AI

AI has great potential in the public sector, but not if citizens are written out of the equation, according to Smith. In fact, she says, there could be real problems ahead if algorithmic decision-making is allowed – through deliberate intent or just negligence – to take precedence over public opinion. “We need to keep an eye on AI and we need to understand these things fluently. “We’ve already seen in the last couple of years that pretty bad things can happen with the weaponization of AI and machine learning.” That’s why it’s so important that coding and data analytics become part of the wider skill set, rather than specialist pursuits. “The more of us who are fluent at the design table, the more of our different perspectives that are brought to bear in the design of the tools themselves – that’s pretty important. The choice is a global conversation based on combining humanity, social sciences and technology – that’s one path – or a very destructive surveillance society, in an oppressive AI-led world.”

Smith is a compelling advocate for a more straightforward, hands-on, inclusive approach to government IT, even when budgets are tight, projects complex and societal problems even more so.

“What is a government, anyway? It’s just people who show up and who want to serve their country,” she says. “But technologists have a huge role to play. If you don’t have a tech person deeply embedded in every conversation, the risk is that a lot of slow, expensive stuff gets built. I don’t know anything about foster care for children, for example. But I do know how to get a project running, how to ask the right questions about digital delivery, how to best use the data available and how to build an app. As technologists, we can’t share that with other government colleagues if we’re not in the room.”

“All around the world, people are feeling nervous about the future, they’re feeling unincluded in the future. We’re not using our resources across our governments and our communities to include everyone and make everyone part of the future. We need to figure out where the populations are that we could pull in to bring a different experience. Only then can we solve some of our biggest problems.”


First published September 2018
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