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The great divide between government and tech is well known, but a recent study noted the huge disconnect between government and its usage of technology. While California (unsurprisingly) topped the list of most usable legislative websites, other states were still far behind when it came to accessibility. The results were even worse when it came to accessing government websites via mobile devices. “The vast majority were lacking mobile-friendly usability,” said Adam Nekola, a marketing web developer for FiscalNote, who conducted the study.

The government didn’t do any favors when it launched Healthcare.gov back in 2013 amidst the partial government shutdown. The website was meant to facilitate the transition of people without health insurance into health insurance plans. Numerous technical difficulties were reported, and the website’s launch was deemed a failure on both technical and bureaucratic ends. While people were quick to blame the government, the IT contractor the government employed, CGI Federal, was the brains behind the website. While the problem was quickly fixed, many people were still agitated about the government’s lack of technological savvy.

President Barack Obama recently signed an executive order extending the Presidential Innovation Fellows program that was started in 2012, and has made it permanent. “My hope is this continues to encourage a culture of public service among our innovators, and tech entrepreneurs, so that we can keep building a government that’s as modern, as innovative, and as engaging as our incredible tech sector is,” Obama said. The program will now extend beyond Obama’s tenure as president, and possibly be one of his best tech-related policies.

The program, started by former United States chief technology officer Todd Park, recruits individuals from the tech community to serve in the public sector before returning back to the private sector. While government jobs are still sought after, there are different rules governing the public and private sectors of labor. Much like the military, the administration refers to these jobs as “tours of duty”, with a “tour” lasting six months to two years. The fellowship’s four goals are: recruiting the best our nation has to offer; partner with innovators inside government; deploy proven private sector strategies; and focus on the nation’s biggest and most pressing challenges, which the White House said were access to education, fueling job creation and the economy, and expanding the public’s ability to access their own personal health data (possibly an acknowledgment to the failed Healthcare.gov launch).

While government does fall short in some areas when it comes to tech, there are some things that the government has tech-wise over their private sector counterparts. According to a Washington Post interview with Michelle Lee, current director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and Deputy General Counsel, and former Head of Patents and Patent Strategy at Google from 2003 to 2012, the government is not bound by tech industry expectations, nor is government bound to meeting any sort of financial targets, unshackling it from the constraints of meeting arbitrary financial figures. “Government and governmental agencies have to do what’s right for the entire society and the entire public. Their decisions are not driven by what is right for me and my industry at this time, or this quarter as I try to hit my quarterly or yearly financial targets. I view my job as doing what’s right for innovation for the American public now and in the long run. I can tell you that was not my goal and my mission when I was in the private sector,” she said.

Lee also stressed that while government is slow to adopt tech, they also want to take a utilitarian approach to tech: the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. “I do think that the government, even though the process is sometimes slower and there’s a lot of consensus-building that’s needed, it for the most part does a good job of trying to think, ‘What is right for the system, across all industries, across all technology areas, now and in the long run?’ That’s the holy grail. That’s the goal. But I don’t think that’s always the goal in the private sector,” she added.

The newest fellows have backgrounds in big data, project management, design and security, which are all challenges facing government technology. While government websites were quick to access due to being mostly text-based, their usability did not come up to speed. Some notable former fellows seeking to bring government up to speed include Adam Riggs (President and Chief Financial Officer of Shutterstock), Dr. Henry Wei (Senior Medical Director at Aetna), and Susannah Raub (Lead Developer at Google Maps), showing that several individuals from big companies in the private sector have some interest in improving government’s technological savvy.

Other fellows have stayed in the current administration as tech advisors. Riggs is now the Senior Policy Advisor for the Office of the Secretary of State, and former fellows also occupy the Chief Architect of Data.gov (Phil Ashlock) and Chief Data Officer of the Department of Commerce (Ian Kalin). While there has been criticism of the government for collecting personal data in the past, they still continue to forge on with a focus on big data.

“When government acts as a platform, entrepreneurs, startups, and the private sector can build value-added services and tools on top of federal data sets supported by federal policies. Taking this approach, Fellows and agency stakeholders have supported the creation of new products and services focused on education, health, the environment, and social justice,” the press release said. Have government and tech reconciled yet? Making this program permanent could be a step in the right direction as government seeks out the private sector’s tech knowledge.

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