The government must take a page from the technology industry by
learning how to measure the effectiveness of its programs, according to
tech evangelist and O'Reilly Media founder Tim O'Reilly.
well-known digital publisher and organizer of events like the Gov 2.0
Summit, O'Reilly is a key figure in the movement to increase the
federal government's use of technology to engage the public. But, he
argues, the focus on getting agencies to join Twitter and Facebook is
"There's lots of focus on social media and
outreach, but that's the easy stuff. The stuff that's hard that's been
really transformative for industry is to create real-time feedback
loops using data," O'Reilly said during a conversation Wednesday with
He pointed to Walmart, where inventory is
automatically updated when a customer purchases something at the
check-out counter. O'Reilly said Walmart and other companies like it
have managed to create a central nervous system using technology that
constantly tracks how they are performing. He contrasted that with
government, which is heavily reliant on a top-down approach but lacks
feedback from end users.
"Government programs have no
feedback loops to judge their effectiveness. Things are cast in
concrete before we know whether they are going to work or not," he
said. As an example, he cited the Head Start program for low-income
children at the Department of Health and Human Services.
"If Head Start were a startup it would be out of business. It doesn't work," O'Reilly said.
Like federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra, O'Reilly is a
believer in the concept of "government as a platform," which involves
making federal data publicly accessible, allowing developers to find
innovative and practical uses for it.
"What we’re really
trying to get at is how data as a platform can enable new kinds of
behavior and applications. Lot of people look at Vivek and Data.gov,
they think it’s just about transparency and accountability," he said.
"But it's also about the possibility of creating feedback loops.
Figuring out what’s working and what’s not so we can change what is not
working. We're looking at areas such as welfare and education."
O'Reilly acknowledged the bureaucracy might be resistant to exposing
its shortcomings, which is why transparency plays such a critical role
in reforming how the government works.
"This whole idea of
visibility by the public creates a pretty powerful lever," he said. "In
the new transparency era, you are able to make change you would
otherwise have difficulty making. It's no longer possible for somebody
just to bury the problem. It's the reason why things like WikiLeaks are
O'Reilly also praised Kundra for his ideas and
objectives but said execution issues outside of his control have
hampered his effectiveness.
"I think it's really hard for example
to get some of the agencies to cooperate and produce really useful
data. I think he's totally on the right track," O'Reilly said. He also
suggested Kundra's critics show more patience, arguing the "open-data
movement" has only been serious for the past 20 months.
"We would like to see more, but am I skeptical about the long-term direction? Not at all," he said.
factors that are traditionally cited as barriers to the government's
use of technology is the shortage of technical personnel and the
difficulty of navigating the federal procurement process. O'Reilly
suggested the latter concern is more pressing than the former.
think it's less a matter of expertise than the fact the government
doesn't control its own resources. The contracting process is really
badly broken," O'Reilly said. "You can't do rapid, iterative
development very easily in the current [request for proposal], prime
contractor etc. environment. We have to get change there.
On the topic of recruiting the best IT minds to the government, he was more optimistic.
is a possibility of fresh talent coming to work for the government.
Millennials are the most public-spirited generation since the 1960s.
There is an opportunity to harness that generation and make government
service cool again."