Why The Government Doesn't Get Technology
from the well,-one-of-many-reasons dept
There’s been lots of talk in the past few months about the sheer ignorance of those in goverment on technology issues — in some cases where elected officials are gleefully, willfully ignorant. Some of them are just out of touch (or old, old-fashioned and have no desire to be in touch). Others, however, do seem to want to keep up on the latest technology. But there’s a problem there. The technology the government gives them is so out of date, in many cases they don’t understand the technology because they don’t know the technology. Now, to be fair, there actually are some government staffers who are really clued in, and who understand all of this stuff deeply. In fact, I recently met some federal government IT staffers, who were quite well informed. But those tend to be the kind of “tech native” folks who would follow technology no matter what, even if their jobs didn’t depend on it. Those are the tech natives, the early adopters, etc.
But the problem is in the much larger group outside of the “tech native” people. It’s in the group of folks who want to know about and understand technology, but don’t follow it closely. And the big problem here is that the government makes it exceedingly difficult to get new technology in front of these people. Clay Johnson recently had a great post about how this became clear, quite graphically, among techies in the federal government. They’d have two computers on their desks — an ancient one that the government gave them (with a screensaver showing, because it wasn’t actually being used) and a late model Macbook… that they had bought personally to bring into the office to actually do some work. He found out that just the process of buying an official new computer through the government procurement system required at least an 18-month wait. That may seem like a typical “cobbler’s children have no shoes” issue, but the implication for those making our laws is tremendous:
I think this “two computer problem” is a symptom of a much larger issue. For those of you that are unfamiliar with Moore’s law, it’s general principal is that technology gets twice as good every 18 months. So if it takes government about 18 months to do anything expensive (by expensive I mean: something that costs more than a few thousand dollars) with technology, we’ve built in that government must be at least one cycle behind the private sector when it comes to Moore’s law. Compounding this is the sunk-cost fallacy: In order to stay just one cycle behind the rest of society, government would have to begin the purchasing process again as soon as new computers hit desks. But they won’t do that, because “you just got a new computer!”
Thus, a great gap has built up, not just with the pace of work, but in the access to technology. But the thing that makes this frightening is that Moore’s law isn’t linear, it’s exponential. With every cycle of Moore’s law, the difference between two points on the curve doubles. Being one cycle behind the curve 18 months from now is twice as bad as it is today.
This is a big problem. Understanding where innovation is heading is a difficult enough business when you’re deeply immersed in today’s technologies. But it’s ridiculously more difficult when you’re basing your understanding of where technology will be tomorrow… on a knowledge of technology that is, in all reality, multiple generations out of date.
You can understand, of course, how things got this way. There are budgets and spending limitations that the government has to deal with — and since it’s such a massive bureaucracy, things take time and have to be checked, double checked, triple checked, sent out for bid, quadruple checked, etc. But it really does show a symptom of how things get to be this way with politicians making bad laws that show an ignorance of technology. They don’t use it. They don’t comprehend what it means. At best, they think it’s just a tool, like a hammer, rather than something much more powerful than that.