Not so long ago, the US government’s approach to technology was a hot mess.
That’s what I learned from Steven VanRoekel at Geekwire Summit 2014, in what might be his last public appearance as U.S. Chief Information Officer. We’ve all seen the not-so current hardware/software in local branches of government but, according to VanRoekel, the same problem affected the ENTIRE United States government.
A Daunting Challenge
When VanRoekel sat down at his computer on his first day, he found Windows XP waiting for him, at which point the software was a decade old. But beyond dated software, he also found that our government, which once led in tech, had “lost its way.”
Culturally, technology was seen “as this very discretionary thing” that people used to print, check email, and call the help desk; disorganization ran rampant. The Department of Agriculture had 21 different email systems (21!). The department secretary couldn’t even send mail to his staff simultaneously. Oh, and guess how much this we-don’t-need-no-centralization-of-communication mentality cost the U.S. government? 500 million dollars, and that was only in one department. THAT IS CRAZY.
Luckily for Washington, VanRoekel proved up for the task of cleaning things up – as much as he could. He schooled people about the role tech has to play in communication, governing, strategy and even customer service. He helped develop foundational policies for cloud computing, cyber security and open data. And, most importantly, the Department of Agriculture now has one cloud based email system.
Planning for the Future
Though he did lot across the board to improve technology use in Washington, there is still a lot to be done. So, if VanRoekel is leaving, how will the US government survive? Well, hopefully his successor will be able to pick up where he leaves off, but it’ll be with the help of The United States Digital Service (USDS).
This team, created to salvage healthcare.gov and made permanent after doing so, formed as a way to centralize the solving of governmental technology problems. Rather than having different agencies hiring different vendors and working autonomously, this group collectively helps individual government agencies build and deliver technology solutions.
Currently, the USDS consists of people hired from the private sector, the best people in government (like the kind that land rovers on Mars, etc.…) and a selection of other rotating private sector employees who come in and take a stab at solving technology issues in government. I look forward to seeing how this group performs and will definitely be keeping a closer eye on the intersection of government and technology.
After VanRoekel’s session, I left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the time and effort he put into bringing the government’s technology dinosaurs into the digital age. I even managed to shake his hand after the session, and tell him so myself.