Using Government IT to Teach and Build Public Infrastructure

And ending the customer/user paradigm while we’re at it

I’m more convinced than ever that the general public is not super aware of the opportunity that exists to build non-consumer or non-commercial technology. Public technology. Without a public that knows how differently our government technology could work there cannot be public accountability and pressure to create public tech. Most of the tech we hear about in the media or that we purchase is for consumer use — it’s commercially premised. And the ‘techlash’ has lumped entirely different types of tech (and their related problems) into one big heap despite how different Amazon is from Apple, Facebook is from Google, and all the combinations in between. The common feature, however, is that they’re commercial.

Yet technology doesn’t have to be. Nothing about software code is inherently capitalist; code can be used as a civic material for non-commercial ends. It can also be open source and shareable when the conditions are right. And governments are perfectly situated to give public technology more oxygen and attention. If governments are successful in doing this, perhaps it will only be known as better government, and not public technology at all.

A few weeks ago one of the bright spots in technology conferences was held — the Our Networks conference. I wasn’t able to attend as much as I’d hoped (hello pandemic) but it reminded me to shine a light on it for those that don’t know about it. As you can see from the program, there is a wide range of network technology conversations going on there, and there is also a lot of joy. There is excitement in a community of people seeking to build new things together. I see this excitement and think about what more of it would look like in our governments. And why this matters.

It matters because we’re at a point in time where it’s hard for many people to imagine alternatives to the tech systems that we have currently. It also matters because the institution of government can and should be adapting to support and strengthen democracy and the processes that inform it. Technology offers a way to build out new spaces for collaboration and design. This moment could be used to evolve government technology work into something better funded and supported, including how unionized positions impact how government tech is created and maintained.

This evolution would also include addressing how technology teams work together within and across government(s). Big organizational shifts to make, no doubt, but we’re also at the breaking point for the limitations old organizational structures are imposing on the people working in tech in government. We the public shouldn’t accept this status quo any longer because we are the ones ultimately harmed by it. With differently organized internal technology capacity, there can be new public sector roles to address the digital divide — to make sure that beyond accessible internet for all there is also widespread public ability to use it — socially, politically, employment-wise, artistically — however one may choose.

There’s an opportunity right now for governments to build out spaces for collaboration with the public in a range of new ways that build on the last era of civic tech and open government. Governments can build and support devolved infrastructures and code bases and make them available for communities to customize and use. This would support what Aliya Bhatia wrote about as hyperlocal tech — tech at the neighbourhood level.

A new report by Nisa Malli and Annalise Huynh at the Brookfield Institute looks at digital literacy for youth and it’s an analysis that could be expanded out to the general public of all ages. It describes the opportunity for governments to engage as both a funder and resource creator for digital literacy — the site of the kind of tech work that would help build shareable and adaptable resources for communities across the country. This might mean helping them set up and manage technology like local mesh networks, or co-creating local services to support community needs (childcare availability support as written about by Vass Bednar, healthcare services, access to government services writ large). But not, and this is vital, as a volunteer-dependent model. This approach would work instead as part of a new approach to education and public engagement, and ultimately, public works and economic development. Richard Switzer explores a few more specific ideas for investment in this kind of infrastructure in his recent piece: “Capitalism 2.0: The case for government-funded civic tech”, with a focus on the soft infrastructure of software and platforms versus the hard infrastructure of internet networks.

Beyond the immense public good (and fun) this mode of new public works could open up there is much to be gained inside the public service by a change of approach. Governments have been listening to and deferring to management consultants about how to tech for so long that some of the prominent public tech voices sound just like them. They’ve bought into a hype predicated on hubris and newness — and much like the economy/climate/growth problem we’re facing — newness of tech is part but far from the whole of how to move forward from here. Newness of approach and organizational design is where there is more opportunity. This is about looking at maintenance with fresh eyes as well, including the options to retire programs, services, and even roles.

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THconference action by mail (thank you!) from Our Networks

Part of the reason the current government tech paradigm may be so hard to break is because many senior government IT people have come from the private sector. Which is good for some experience. But their capacity to imagine non-commercial technology is rare to low to none. And this is a loss. The ideas of novelty and newness have their place alongside being able to imagine new ways to build or break or repair or invent systems. And to tie this work to democratic renewal.

Because of this lack of non-commercial technology thinking, we lose out commercially too — big time. This is the irony: much like the public infrastructure that supports so many more commercial activities (roads, water, etc.) so too could public digital infrastructure. It’s not one or the other. It’s building systems that allow others to build on top of them and borrow from them. And to open up the opportunity to do so from anywhere geographically and jurisdictionally. And to open that opportunity up to anyone that’s interested in it. These are attainable middle-term goals.

So beyond data systems that seek to commercialize people’s health information to boost the economy or customer service experiences that treat government services as a drive-through (not inherently bad but totally not the end goal here) or systems that seek to increase trust through AI (?) it would be great to see some planning on digital infrastructures and the people *inside* the public service that could help design them. Part of this can happen by learning while rebuilding through procurement. There is ample space for the ongoing inclusion of the private sector in all of this work. But it needs to be done with a more intentional and different approach.

It’s vital to keep celebrating the people that show us all how to do things differently — and to do them in community. Like the Our Networks community. So thank you to them, and do join the conference next year if you’re able. I was going to volunteer this year, but due to the pandemic, the role was to be a moderator. And I missed the training. And then I realized I wasn’t ready for it. And that just seemed like an interesting thing to share as we consider labour, the future of workers, and our online spaces.

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