The University of Washington was the place to be yesterday. Aside from Steve Ballmer’s speech extolling Microsoft‘s position on the Cloud, we had the President’s Tech Wizard, Vivek Kundra, setting out his vision for getting the government up to speed in matters I.T. As well as getting the nation online to pay their taxes, he wants to give people easy access to their health records, but is more than aware of the magnitude of the task ahead.
The most pertinent point that Kundra made in his address yesterday was the difference in attitudes to technology projects between publicly-funded projects and those in the private sector. While companies approach a task thinking “what does the consumer want?” Government projects tend to focus on how the thing will work, which usually ends up with them losing sight of their original aim–which, in this case, should be user simplicity.
In I.T. terms, the Obama administration is already way ahead of the previous POTUS’s attitude during his two terms of office. Last year they launched USASpending.gov in an attempt to be more transparent in matters of spending. And, most remarkable was that they launched it in Beta form. The Government has long since grasped that, for the concept to work, it will need to be full of open-source goodness, and will need the input of the private sector as well as the federal government’s own boffins. Microsoft, Google and even Amazon could eventually be hosting the information in their Cloud computing systems.
Vivek has, though, got the right idea–“Think about the iPhone,” he said, at the launch of the open-source 311 API on Wednesday, which aims to standardize cities’ 311 services with the help of the people. “Apple didn’t go out there and develop 150,000 applications. It developed the platform.” Detractors of open-source projects will point out ever-constant security issues, but isn’t that the case for proprietary software as well?
While the strategy is heartening–admirable, even–it’s the kind of project that will keep four or five administrations’ hands full–which begs the question: would one party’s long-term technological vision be the same as the other one’s? Given the political wranglings over the country’s health care shenanigans, the answer is probably a resounding no. As Kundra noted yesterday, of the $80 or so billion earmarked for the tech budget, almost one-third of it is connected to projects that are either late or over budget. It sounds like that is where the real problem lies, but it would take a brave man to wield the ax over a quarter of a billion bucks’ worth of failure.