Administration technologists past and present on Wednesday lauded the power of data and emphasized – despite recent stumbles – that government can get it right.
“This notion that there is something inherent in public service or government that intrinsically restricts it from being [innovative] I think is garbage,” said Peter Levin, founder and CEO of Amida Technology Solutions and former chief technology officer for the Veterans Affairs Department, during POLITICO’s Outside In launch event.
U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Nick Sinai brushed aside recruitment obstacles, such as money and status, that can draw young engineers to Silicon Valley instead of Washington.
“People want to work on hard problems and have impact,” he said about government jobs, noting they can give the tech set a chance to work on “massive issues” and “advance the ball.”
Sinai highlighted Open Data, an initiative the Obama administration holds up as a sign of federal creativity.
Joel Gurin, a former Federal Communications Commission official and current senior adviser with the Governance Lab at NYU, said he found activity on the agency level “surprisingly positive.”
The crew had less appreciation for lawmakers, who Levin said were often “utterly illiterate in the decisions they are making” and condescending around policy issues in a way that “is really, really destructive.”
President Barack Obama turned transparency into a buzzword soon after he took office, launching an open government initiative aimed at making federal data more accessible. The effort has helped Americans monitor how the government spends its money and forced agencies to document their work.
The administration was coined the iPod government. It created chief technologist and information officer positions and — as the panel recalled — decked walls with photos of Obama on his smartphone. The president issued an executive order in May that further sought to make government resources available and machine-readable.
But some administration efforts, like an online scorecard for federal IT projects, have had questionable success. The dashboard reported, for much of the time, adequate progress on HealthCare.gov. The website meltdown further revealed cracks in the government’s massive IT system.
And the National Security Agency revelations about government surveillance have spurred questions about the administration’s calls for transparency.