Jordan Sandman is a senior program coordinator with the Digital Impact and Governance Initiative (DIGI) at New America and Kat Phan is a graduate student at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.
Many of the foundational digital systems we use to connect with family and friends, transact, and share information are developed out of a small number of firms in Silicon Valley. At the recent Summit for Democracy, top officials outlined a vision to change that.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, and White House National Economic Council advisor Tim Wu all called for new coalitions that unite the private sector with civil society organizations, academia, and governments to deploy an affirmative vision of digital democracy. Just as roads and bridges are designed, built, and maintained by private companies, policy experts, and public departments of transportation, there is increasing consensus that certain layers of digital public infrastructure such as digital identity, payments, and data exchange should be administered by institutions that leverage the private sector but are also accountable to the public.
Multi-stakeholder coalitions for building digital technologies sound great in principle, but they will not work if the private sector consistently outpaces the public and social sectors. The digital capacity gap between industry and government is clear. As Facebook– now Meta– manages a range of private platforms that serve nearly half of humanity, the US government struggles to share data internally across agencies. As financial institutions go paperless, the IRS fumbled the distribution of stimulus checks that families needed as a lifeline during the pandemic. Federal agencies barely have the capacity to regulate Big Tech effectively. Collaborating on the development of platforms and protocols in a way that harnesses industry toward delivering for the public is an even greater challenge.
A key factor is the private sector’s substantial advantages in attracting technology talent. Part of this equation is pay. Software engineers at Meta earn more than the President of the United States as mid-level managers. Entry level positions begin at six figures for recent graduates, in addition to five-figure bonuses and stock options. Tech companies have also invested heavily in recruitment, management, and advancement processes that make Big Tech jobs more desirable. Getting hired by a brand name company offers a stamp of approval on perceived technical talent and leads to improved exit opportunities.
Big Tech has also created a perception that the private sector is the best place to impact the world at scale. Metrics of change measured by the billions, solutions deployed across multiple countries in seconds, and a “move fast and break things” mantra appeals to young engineers looking to usher in a digital future. Yet recent whistleblowers have illuminated how these companies regularly place profits ahead of social wellbeing.
Differences in technology talent and capacity are not endemic to the private sector or public sector: they are a failure of our public institutions to invest in incentives for civic technologists to work in the public interest. The internet itself was first built by the US government through what became known as Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), but these days the conventional wisdom holds that private firms, not the public sector, should lead the development of digital systems.
Today, a growing, cross-partisan group of critics and public officials are highlighting the failures of relying too heavily on the private sector to administer key digital infrastructure without public accountability. And just this week, President Biden signed an Executive Order calling for a whole-of-government effort to modernize public services in a way that serves people. This is a great first step, but implementing this initiative will take a three-pronged approach.
- Create a Federal Digital Agency
Policymakers should develop a centralized digital agency such as those pioneered in Japan, the UK and India to develop population-scale, interoperable protocols and platforms. The agency could be tasked with deploying a national strategy for data sharing, ensuring user privacy, and developing new digital technologies that serve the public. This institution should build on and coordinate existing efforts within the General Services Administration (GSA), Department of Commerce, 18F, the US Digital Service, and Presidential Innovation Fellows. Through this process, the agency could also provide a home for a new generation of public interest technologists.
- Build local capacity
Digital technologies are increasingly the medium for how the public accesses government services in the 21st century. We have observed that local governments sometimes do not have the capacity to write an RFP for services they need. Every agency tasked with public interaction needs a dedicated digital staff for streamlining access to key services. New America’s Public Interest Technology team and Digital Impact and Governance Initiative also advocate for digital staff to work directly with users to ensure systems are inclusive and effective. Until states and municipalities build capacity, the US will continue to rely on private companies to build critical digital systems that often do not work for people.
- Invest in a public sector digital workforce
Public interest technologists working across government are often overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated. In an era when a handful of people can create a $1 billion dollar company, it’s time to recognize that the public sector needs to compensate technologists according to the value they provide to citizens. Separately, the U.S Government Accountability Office produced a report on a “federal digital service academy” to promote technical, quantitative, and digital literacy across agencies. These initiatives can also work at the local level. For example, the City of San Francisco runs a Data Academy available to all municipal staff on data analysis, data visualization, process improvement, and more. Government employees across the country, not just those working in well-resourced cities, should have access to these courses.
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Mission-driven institutions are a natural home for technologists. They offer opportunities for people with digital skills to address public needs ranging from public health, consumer rights, social services, and more. It’s time that our public and social sectors adapt to the digital age and commit to offering technologists key roles in every major organization. Only then can we deliver on the vision laid out at the Summit for Democracy.