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Government needs to close the feedback loop
Source: http://thehill.com/
Source Date: Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Focus: Institution and HR Management
Created: Aug 30, 2010

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.

As a 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 misplaced.

"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 Hillicon Valley.

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 important."

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.

Two 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.

"I 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.

"There 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."
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