“The artificial barrier that has kept the technology industry and the public sector separated on different evolutionary paths is porous right now, and if enough people cross over, it can be destroyed.” — Mikey Dickerson
In 2014, Mikey Dickerson was working as a site manager for Google, leading an international team of engineers to help support the firm’s world-class innovation machine.
In April, Dickerson got pulled into a call about the launch of healthcare.gov — at the time, a huge public relations disaster for the Obama administration. Wait times on the website were skyrocketing, and projections for new enrollments had been revised from 10 million to less than half that. The stakes were monumental. If government health care exchanges — one of the most contentious facets of the Affordable Care Act — couldn’t be pushed through, the United States would lose its best shot at universal health care in decades.
Dickerson led a team of private- sector engineers and managers to assess, evaluate and implement solutions to turn healthcare.gov around. Two months later, more than eight million Americans had enrolled. Dickerson and his team were featured on the cover of Time Magazine. Three months after that, Dickerson left Google for the U.S. Digital Service, a new White House agency committed to institutionalizing innovation among public-sector stakeholders.
You don’t hear about people like Dickerson very often, and with good reason: little innovation has sprouted from the public sector during the 21st century. The U.S. Digital Service is a rarity, one of a handful of agencies seeking to upend the way we think about technology in government.
Why does the government seem so immune to “disruption”? One reason is that political incentives often protect incumbents and, by extension, discourage the development of forward thinking upstart providers. In the corporate world, you innovate or get left behind. Private-sector players are pushed to scale operations by leveraging technology. In government, on the other hand, competitive threats are virtually nonexistent.
Civil servants are, however, remarkably aware of the bureaucracy in which they operate. Both of us have witnessed efforts to improve the public provision of goods through coordinated action; cross-agency collaboration has promoted everything from science and technology initiatives to the elimination of federal grant redundancies.
Over the next decade, the link between the public sector and technology will only grow stronger. It is incumbent on the millennial generation to work as technological evangelists, pushing change through the right channels and encouraging organic innovation in the federal sector.
A 2013 Deloitte Report on disruptive innovation put it this way: “The notion that the public sector can’t — or won’t — innovate is a myth. Innovation in government occurs virtually every day — from the way governments across the world are opening up their data to entrepreneurs to build apps for everything from real time transit information to school test score comparisons to the myriad ways soldiers on the battlefield address life-and-death challenges.”
Don’t let the public sector’s shortcomings become white noise. If you’re looking for problems to solve, the government has plenty. And solutions to those problems will have real consequence. Dickerson’s eleventh-hour efforts on healthcare.gov ensured that millions of Americans would have unfettered health care access. That access will have a profound and enduring generational impact.
It’s ironic that the U.S. Federal Government — which has done an incredible job of promoting innovation across the country — hasn’t fully reaped the benefits of its hard work. From the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s role in developing Internet communication technology to a well-designed and far-reaching patent system, the government has excelled in creating an environment in which ambitious thinkers can thrive.
Through stronger collaboration and less friction between the world’s most inventive companies and the federal government, we can build a 21st-century government that is more in tune with citizens’ demands and better able to promote the common good.
Rohan Shetty is a senior in the McDonough School of Business. Naman Trivedi is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. [and Service] appears every other Tuesday.
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