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When Government Gets Tech Right Part I

Last week, I had an op-ed in the New York Times. The unfortunate headline (one that the Times came up with, but I consented to in a rush to get the op-ed out) was Why The Government Never Gets Tech Right. While I do agree that government rarely gets tech right, never is a dangerous word to use here, first because it's not true, and second because when government gets tech right, it's instructive and it's a bad idea to ignore where the success is for the sake of a clickable headline. Especially for the guy who wrote this book.

Healthcare.gov is instructive in a lot of ways because it highlights the failure of so many of our oversight, risk mitigation, and development systems. It's a project that draws attention to the fact that the systems that we use to buy and build technology are undeniably broken. But they're not universally broken. So I'd like to spend this week talking about where success is, and how those models can be replicated.

When those of us that work closely with government think about IT success, there's no greater technology success story than the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It's an agency with an entire budget that's within the same ballpark as the cost of some larger IT projects, and they've built a reputation for being the best team in the league.

Last week they released their eRegulations tool, a way to browse through the CFPB's regulations. And you can see it in CFPB's Github repository. Now granted, this is no Healthcare.gov, but let's compare this to, say, the way that you browse the federal acquisition regulation. Or the whole corpus of US Federal Regulations. What a difference while the language of the CFPB's regulations are somewhat unavoidably bad (because lawyers write them, not people interested in clear and effective communication), certainly CFPB's technology and design initiatives have put an emphasis on making their regulations as accessible as their lawyers' cultural speech impediment will allow.

Just as a broken Healthcare.gov is a symptom of a larger problem, CFPB's well designed regulation browser is indicative of a strong and successful model for developing technology internally. Unlike many other agencies, CFPB brought much of its technology brains inside. Initially under the leadership of now Senator Elizabeth Warren, she brought in Eugene Huang and Merici Vinton[1]. I spoke with Huang and Vinton in the early days of CFPB and it was clear they wanted to build a different kind of agency, one with technical brains and acumen on the inside from the start.

That notion paid off. CFPB made key hires, and built a design and technology leadership organization on the inside. Now, when they want to build simple tools like the regulations browser, they can. And when they need to contract with an external entity to do things larger than their internal team is capable of, they know how to do it, and whom to select.

This isn't something that could really happen out of the blue at an agency like the Department of Health and Human Services, or the Department of Defense though. CFPB started from scratch, as a high-priority effort from the president. They got to invent their own culture and their own status-quo, that's not something that even a new Secretary of Defense gets to do. There were no entrenched vendors, entrenched processes, or entrenched culture inside of CFPB.

But now that CFPB has done it, it can be used as a model of success for other agencies. If there's a lesson to take away from Healthcare.gov, it's that while procurement reform is important, you also need people on the inside who know what they're doing.


[1]: Just a transparency note: Merici worked on my team at the Sunlight Foundation before moving on to CFPB.

Clay is the chairman and co-founder of The Department of Better Technology.

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