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How the U.S. government’s low-tech reputation is hurting future innovators

The federal government is actually a big player in technology, but unlike its cohorts in the private sector, it fails to talk up its own work—or spend enough on incubating future technologies.

How the U.S. government’s low-tech reputation is hurting future innovators
[Photo: rasslava/iStock]

The U.S. government has an image problem.

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The idea that the government is a low-tech place where projects move slowly has chilled the willingness of lawmakers to fund ambitious, tech-driven projects within the government. And it’s stifled the movement of talented people into government service roles.

In a conversation at Fast Company‘s Innovation Festival Thursday, ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo, and Booz Allen Hamilton chief innovation officer Susan Penfield argued that the government needs to embark on a charm offensive to prove that big-time, game-changing innovation isn’t strictly confined to the private sector.

According to Penfield of Booz Allen Hamilton, the government doesn’t entirely deserve its low-tech reputation.

“There’s amazing work going on every day, and it really takes leadership . . . from the federal sector to really tout the things they’re doing,” Booz Allen’s Penfield said. “If you think about the government, they’re a research institute, they’re an insurance company, they’re protecting us here and abroad, and our national intelligence apparatus I can’t talk a lot about, but the things they’re doing today are amazing and absolutely innovative.”

Part of the problem is that the government undersells its own projects and people. “Michelle Obama said there’s no marketing in government—it’s true,” Penfield said. “So we need our government sector leaders to get out there and talk about the things they’re doing.”

Raimondo believes it may be more about showing than telling. “I think we have to continue to show people how their lives are better,” the governor said. “People will regain their faith in government over time if they see that things are improving.” On Raimondo’s watch, Rhode Island has aggressively funded and peopled tech projects that have retrofitted government systems.

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The Trump Administration isn’t necessarily anti-tech, but some parts of the government still run on very old technology, a fact that’s apparent in the slowness with which the Treasury has distributed stimulus checks during the pandemic.

Schmidt believes that the government’s image problem may be hurting Silicon Valley in an indirect way. That’s because there’s a lack of support for government partnerships with universities and research facilities, and it’s in these places that the Googles and Amazons of tomorrow incubate. “Science funding as a percentage of GDP is below what it was in Sputnik times,” Schmidt said.

(To encourage young people to pursue careers in service, Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, have launched Rise, an initiative of Schmidt Futures and the Rhodes Trust. Applications for the program, aimed at students between the ages of 15 to 17 with a focus on those students in need of the resources and support, open this fall.)

Many of the technology advancements that people assume are the work of big private companies are really built on top of research that was funded by the government, he pointed out. Schmidt said the government needs to make the public aware of that fact.

“You like the GPS? That goes back to the university system that was originally funded by essentially an Air Force project,” he said. “You like the iPhone? The iPhone technology originally came out of that funding.”

Fast Company Editor in Chief Stephanie Mehta, who moderated the conversation, pointed out that public trust in, and respect for, the government remains at historic lows, while the public’s trust in the private sector—including high tech companies—is much higher. “The American public has ceded innovation to the private sector,” Mehta said.

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There are those who portray the government as incompetent for political reasons. The idea that government is the cause, not the solution, for people’s problems is a Right-wing saw that dates back to the Reagan years and is still given as a reason to shrink the federal government. That view has metastasized into the radical anti-government posture seen in the current administration.

“In the past however many years there’s been a very simplified rhetoric around what it will take to have a strong economy,” Raimondo said. “There’s this simplified view held by many, and put forth by many—cut taxes, cut regulation, and you will have growth, despite the fact that every stitch of data will show that to be false.”

Raimondo said state governments and the federal government should create regulatory and tax structures that are hospitable to business. But it’s equally important to make large investments in education and in research and development.

“And business leaders, technologists, and entrepreneurs need to amplify that voice,” she said.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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