More than 60 years ago, CP Snow wrote an essay titled “The Two Cultures”. Snow defines this duality as existing between the sciences and the humanities, and notes the lack of collaboration and division between them has greatly hindered each culture’s ability to solve world problems. Still, we exist in two secular worlds. The world of the technologists, who typically build and create fascinating things without deep regard for their societal implications, and the world of policy and humanity, which tends to critique technology and propose solutions - without really understanding them*.
Despite the ever-present influence of technology on today’s society, the world problems we face are scarcely technological. In fact, they are problems of effective governance. COVID-19 has continually revealed the problems that most deeply affect our society will require the involvement of technologists within government.
As recently as last century, technologists were more deeply intertwined with the government, largely as a result of the uniting nature of war. Political motivations fused the two cultures to bring about everything from the Bombe that broke Enigma, to the Saturn V rocket that took man to the moon. As global tensions diminished, more “exciting” technological projects started budding outside of governments worldwide. The two cultures became separated. Nowadays, it is impressive if a US congressman understands how Facebook makes money, despite the fact they are the ones regulating it.
Consequences of this divorce permeate several levels of society. Unfortunately, it is not just Senator Blumenthal asking Facebook’s safety chief about ending the finsta. Government ignorance is a common theme in societal roadblocks. One case that comes to mind is the rollout of healthcare.gov. Technical issues can be more subtle, yet equally damaging, than this notorious case. In fact, many vaccine registration websites in the US violated numerous disability laws. This rendered the majority of the 7.6 million visually impaired Americans incapable of signing up for a vaccine without someone else’s help, but could order a pizza online alone just fine. The cruel irony in this negation of the inherently fundamental nature of accessible design principles is that it is a lesson often taught in intro classes. There is a serious problem with how the government allocates private contracts, which you can read more about in the appendix.
The process of fixing the government varies immensely from what would be undertaken to restructure a company or ameliorate an organization. Mark Lerner says it best when he notes “it may seem like some of the solutions are simple: adopt agile ways of working, bring in design practices, launch small products and improve them over time.” But things are not so simple “At every level of government, the various people involved are all trying to do their best – but are struck with outdated requirements, restrictive policies, confining interpretations, and perverse incentive structures that not only keep them from doing the right thing but push them towards working in ways we know will lead towards failure. In other words, the path of least resistance is the path towards failure”.
To truly break the cycle of expensive governmental failure, there are two main action items. We first must recognise the huge impact technologists are able to make within the current systems of government. S&T Policy is a budding, hugely impactful opportunity for many which may come in many different shapes and forms. One may opt to think of public interest technology work as a sabbatical. Technologists can briefly leave academia or industry and work for or with the government, building important and impactful tools. More than that - they would finally be able to act as a bridge between the Snow’s Two Cultures, bringing in perspectives that are much needed for both groups. This involvement could manifest itself in many different ways. Young technologists could embark on a two year journey with the US Digital Corp to create a more effective and equitable government, or fellowships with the U.S. Digital Service, Technology Transformation Services, Code for America, U.S. of Tech, Coding it Forward, Tech Talent Project ,TechCongress, Presidential Innovation Fellows. Technologists could join the Alan Turing Institute in the UK and lead studies that provide a data driven approach to grappling with vaccine hesitancy among parents. Canadians can join the Code for Canada fellowship and be embedded within the government working on technical projects. Alternatively, they can join various chapters like civic tech Toronto and work on more local projects there. The good news is that, with each new week, a new program is available for young technologists to engage within the government.
The second, even more impactful way, lies in the changing of the very structures of government and policy-making. This is a natural next step for those who want to embed themselves further within policy work. This entails unpacking each problem and creating solutions optimized to be pursued directly within government. This could be executed through the creation of memos detailing simple problems and their relevant solutions to communicate directly with selected relevant staffers One way to build upon this concept is to go through programs that provide an ecosystem that exists to propagate and bolster these ideas and projects, like the Aspen Tech Policy initiative, or the Day One Project Policy Accelerator. Technologists could join groups like the Plaintext Group, a nonpartisan technology innovation policy initiative developed by Schmidt Futures. Academia is also a very viable option for countries that do not have the existing tech policy infrastructure. In the UK, the Centre for the study of existential risk is a great way to work with and inform the government (CSER helped craft the national AI policy the UK recently deployed). There are also ample opportunities with the Oxford Internet Institute - one of their missions is to “provide the empirical data and conceptual analysis that is so needed to design policy solutions to societal problems”, afterall.
Technologists possess an immense amount of knowledge - knowledge and understanding that others, especially politicians, do not have. Yet, we often do not even pass through the halls of power, let alone take a seat in them. This goes beyond saving money or fixing a political system, in the case of vaccine registration sites, it literally saves lives.
As Bruce Schneier said, “it never was okay for tech to be separate from policy - it's just that today the separation is much more dangerous. We need technologists informing policy, creating tools, and building the future. We need people who can speak tech to power, and we need them now.”
Catastrophic failures of government technology are not unique to the United States. In 2004, the UK government launched FiReControl, which endeavored to decrease the number of control rooms used to handle emergency calls. FiReControl was riddled with technical problems so mundane they would have been unheard of in the private sector - but are, unfortunately, not surprising in a governmental context. In fact, the new control centers which aimed to amalgamate the emergency network were built before the IT contract, the core of this entire project, was even awarded. The management team of this project was composed, in an overwhelming majority, of consultants who wracked up a bill of 68 million pounds by the end of the project (and were not managed or held accountable). The IT contract was, eventually, awarded to a company with no direct experience of providing emergency services, and they themselves ended up relying on sub contractors which the government had no visibility or control over. The contract between the government and the company lacked the most basic technical milestones, which disabled the government from holding the contractor accountable for project delays. At its conclusion, the project cost 469 million pounds or a staggering 700 million dollars in today’s money. None of the original project goals were achieved. In the subsequent report, a governmental committee notes that “[They] find a common cause of project failure is the lack of understanding of the impact of technology changes on users, and this was evident in FiReControl”.
The entirety of congress houses only 9 engineers out of 535 members. In Canada, there are only 4 out of the 338 Members of Parliament.
*The work of Bruce Schneier greatly influenced and inspired this piece, especially the intro.
Thank you to Shrey Jain and Emily Nobes for their feedback on this essay.