Leadership in Government IT — Learning While Rebuilding Through Procurement

Invoking large tech corporations when talking about how government IT could work happens a lot. I know where the frustration comes from, the desire to escape the problematic and paralysing constraints of old systems, cultural roadblocks, underfunding, legal issues, procurement, the list goes on and on. Rather than get into why I think large corporations aren’t the model to emulate, I’m going to expand on why this idea of invoking large corporations rankles me and should rankle you.

It lacks imagination. It lacks the leadership we need so intensely right now. It’s a lack of leadership I see at all levels of government, the ones that use innovation every second word but underfund core and priority services and infrastructure. So long as social inequity widens on your watch, you as a government will never be innovative. Good news: there is a political future for ethical technology. It would be innovative. It would make government the place more tech talent wants to go. This is the time to shake up our big public sector IT environments up to do better with the money they have. Better for residents, better for staff, better for everyone.

Procurement is one of the oft-discussed channels that can bring this kind of change. It’s one tool in a set of many, including labour policy, HR, legal reform, and others. But for a moment, let’s look at a particular element of procurement: who government buys from and how those transactions work. Here’s a suggestion to explore:

Build procurement models that let small shops and service-providers in, and build mandatory elements of training into their contracts, all of them. Seek shops that use open-source or at least open tech and bring that ethos into government. Build new teams up to minimize but never completely forego external support. This economy is exciting. This is co-creation with Kitchener-Waterloo and elsewhere — buy and teach. Buy and train. Support small business because small is where new stuff happens fast and well. I’ll share an example of how this training idea existed in my career. Granted, it needs to be revised in several ways for software rather than service, but there is a fundamental element that carries over.

The Toronto aquarium, operational bits are open and exposed.

I had the opportunity to work for Nicole Swerhun for about five years at her small company, Swerhun. The firm and all the people there do incredible work for governments and government agencies. She’s one of the smartest people I know and a force that has helped residents shape literally hundreds of civic projects here and abroad by means of a strategic approach to public consultation.

Every time we did a government contract there were ample opportunities for the governments we worked for to learn her approach to ensure good and meaningful consultation. She did and does the same things over and over, never keeping her approach hidden or mysterious. She was working with an “open methodology” before that had a name, I think. There is always critical work that is done from a place of experience and specialization. That kind of stuff is human. But if you wanted to learn you could learn.

The learning can’t be optional anymore. One big weakness to address in government purchasing today is that governments buy services then default to “they’re doing it” (vendors = risk mitigation) rather than “we’re doing this” (vendors + govt = co-creation). Big consulting shops have public sector experts. Some tech shops have divisions that only sell to governemnt. These can be teachers and co-collaborators but the process will have to change drastically.

It means we need to stop seeing vendors as drive-by one-time situations. Force their hand. Stop the revolving door of having to work inside or outside. Build both concurrently. We figured out a government license for data — it’s probably time to figure out a few more licensing models for government software that pushes open elements inside. One that makes purchased code bases open for ongoing development and customization from inside government. One that lets external vendors and internal govt staff build together. I’m getting out of my knowledge zone here, so please point me to government licensing progress that land between totally open and closed if you know of them.

Point is — let the smart tech staff that we’ve got inside government help drive product, not just respond to and maintain messes that they’ve had foisted on them. Make the software industry respond to the need to rebuild internal government IT and staff skills. If firms aren’t able to respond to this need, they don’t get public money. Easy. I guarantee firms will find a way to respond to this work. There is a connected layer about how staff policy leads need to be layered in here, but I’ll save that for another day. This aproach means investing in long-term project-based training that teaches through doing, rather than so much of the one-off training that governments buy, training that is independent of and counter to internal systems and realities.

When government does business it should treat every single contract as a chance to build capacity. In the tech sector, this means looking for vendors that will help play a role in rebuilding the dependent mess that is currently government IT. That’s the leadership we need. Leadership here means pushing back against an industry that has been working counter to the public good because they were given permission. And to link this back to the constant theme — this permission was granted through neoliberalism that suggested we shrink government and outsource. That was wrong. Leadership is push back. Innovation is push back. Step up.

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