The government needs to reform its relationship with technology

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on November 6, 2013

From The News Desk

Everyday, it seems, you come across a different pundit decrying the incompetent rollout, or yet another anecdote about its failings.

While some gripes may elucidate solutions, they may also be smoke and shadows that obscure the larger problem of the government's overall approach toward technology, that is, the way the federal government adopts and implements new public-facing technological programs. While citizens' inability to access the website is, of course, bad, perhaps what should be reformed is not the idea of a standardized site to sign up for healthcare, but the way government administrations procure and implement new technologies.

So says Nick Bowden from the Omaha-based startup MindMixer, which provides an online platform to connect politicians and municipal decision makers with their constituents. MindMixer works to create a platform to more easily create dialogues between citizens and political figures. Bowden explains it as bringing the "town hall meeting concept online." At heart, though, is the understanding that the government needs to integrate and utilize up-to-date technology with the political process. Indeed, Obamacare would benefit from this type of philosophy.

A primary concern with, Bowden says, is the process by which it created the site. "The federal government is limited to the contractors they can choose," he said.

The government chose CGI Federal, a Canada-based company that has been taking federal contracts for the past few years, to build the site. The Washington Post writes that CGI is the 29th largest federal IT contractor, acquiring $950 million worth of contracts in 2012.

That, Bowden says, illustrates the problem. "The procurement process," he told me "makes things highly handicapped." Large companies like CGI lack the understanding of how to implement brand new software technologies. While it's true CGI does have the economic power, its approach to this form of IT development doesn't echo how good websites are built.

Of course, procurement isn't the only problem hampering Obamacare. To name just a few of the problems with this rollout, there was the ever-persistent Republican opposition as well as constant budget woes. These, with myriad other political headaches, made an uphill battle from the very start.

But procurement is an issue that is both bipartisan and will continue to haunt future government projects as time goes on.

At the heart of Bowden's crusade is the idea that public-facing government technology should be open-sourced and developed by the freshest minds out there. These are people who understand how to beta test software and grasp the concept behind the iterative process of software building. Bowden believes this could have been avoided had been released to the developer community first, allowing for bugs to be figured out before the public rollout.

Abhi Nemani, the co-executive director at Code for America which connects technology professionals with city governments, echoed these concerns. The way he sees it, the current federal procurement process "[doesn't] bring in fresh new talent." Instead, Nemani explained, "it goes toward established vendors," and "these are companies designed to take advantage of the system."

Nemani and Bowden see the debacle as an opportunity to create greater awareness around the issue of procurement. Both work for organizations aimed at creating civic discourse around technology, and now the two are even working together to allow citizens to submit ideas for civic technology innovations. Of course, even programs like these are not without their own issues.

Of course, the idea the government has technology procurement issues is not a new revelation., however, is simply the most obvious example. Despite this, Nemani has high hopes for the future.

"Procurement's a problem," he said, "but it's changing." He points to the city of Philadelphia as an ideal example, which has begun dabbling with GitHub as a way to procure technology solutions. He also cites the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as a model for well-designed public-facing websites.

It seems that CGI, though, has yet to grasp the concepts that Nemani and Bowden espouse. Perhaps the IT giant will learn, but as Bowden reminded me, "you don't get a second opportunity for first impressions." And that may be why people are conflating problems with's architecture with the policy itself.

Obama made a promise that the website's bugs would be fixed by the end of Novemeber, so CGI will have to learn fast. Of course, if it decided to adopt a more open and iterative process to roll out the technology, it would take much longer than a month to perfect it. So maybe the goal now should be getting more people aware of the great divide between new technology and the governments understanding of how to implement it.

"I worry that people think the government can't build good technology," Nemani said. "That's wrong, it can."

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for PandoDaily]