Most of us stumble through our daily interactions with technology. We forget our passwords, or have never listened to a podcast, or are anxious about updating to Windows 11. Most days we're happy to find the remote control and remember to charge our phone. The ideas of big data and open systems are so far beyond our comprehension that we give them no thought. Our brains simply don't stretch that far.
Thankfully, people like Innocent Obi, Jr. '12 are working behind the scenes, weaving information together as they analyze, question, and solve problems most of us don't know exist. Democracy in action takes many forms. Some of that work is less visible, less sexy. It's slower.
Innocent completed his master's degree in data science and computational science at University of Michigan's School of Information last spring, and recently joined MIT's Civic Data Design Lab, which synthesizes big data for the public good. Civic data? Urban information architecture? What?
In practical terms, consider that it's questions like the following that spark Innocent's creative mind: How can we design better software that will help the people who rely on the government? How much of the government's work is redundant? Inefficient? And what would it look like if that were to change
Infrastructure, Information, and Efficiency
Imagine our multilayered system of government, with its alphabet soup of agencies and offices, and an entire country relying in some way on its successful functioning. Now consider that many of those offices exist in their own technology silos: they can't easily share information, they use highly varied computer software, and have their own systems of security clearance and encryption. A central part of the Obama administration’s vision was a focus on modernizing our government’s tools, processes, and practices to ensure that it delivers the best outcomes to citizens.
During the Obama presidency, Innocent worked at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University with Sonal Shah, who helped create and was the former director of the White House Office for Social Innovation and Civic Participation. The Beeck Center works to create and promote ideas focusing on how the public, private, and social sectors can collaborate to support innovations that produce better outcomes for society. The group sought to strengthen what they called the “architecture for innovation” in government. Working with White House organizations such as 18F, the United States Digital Service, and other stakeholders across federal, state, and local government, Innocent and his colleagues documented and recommended better ways that our government could use technology, data science, and more effective processes to deliver better outcomes for citizens.
They identified and solved problems. They created and institutionalized effective channels. They improved efficiency for the many stakeholders in systems deeply woven into the fabric of American life: juvenile justice, healthcare, education, and more. For example, prior to the creation of 18F and the United States Digital Service, federal agencies did not have a common process or set of tools to use in evaluating new government tech initiatives from a user-centered design perspective. “[18F] would try to understand the entire process of applying for things like food stamps, federal student aid, and Medicare in order to find and remove redundancies and inefficiencies with the goal of bettering the citizen’s experience," says Innocent. The Beeck Center team not only highlighted successes in government innovation, they also focused on understanding the failures, such as the rollout of healthcare.gov. "It was the first time our government really tried to design something with a software-first, agile approach. It was not completely successful, but we learned a lot from it and tried to instigate a more iterative and risk-tolerant approach to innovation that mirrored how complex software gets delivered outside of government."
The Human Impact
While the work Innocent and his team proposed and evangelized helped people in far-reaching ways, one innovation in particular stands out for him. In the US, the process of preparing a federal budget requires a lot of coordination across different government agencies that usually do not work together. In 2006, the Budget Formulation and Execution Line of Business was created to reduce the inefficiencies, redundancies, and risks that existed in the federal budgeting process. In order to carry out this goal, MAX.gov was created as a simple tool to support file sharing and document collaboration across agencies. In only a matter of years, it became the de facto government collaboration tool.
While it may seem small, MAX.gov transformed the way our government agencies work and collaborate. "If you build one central platform where information can live, and you build a secure fence around it, anyone from any agency can use it if they have the right credentials. In this example, MAX.gov made it easy for OMB to reach out across the federal government to collect the data they needed to prepare the federal budgeting."
How powerful is the impact of centralization? "Before, hundreds of government agencies (and sub-agencies of sub-agencies) were not all speaking to each other, and were using a variety of software. Each of those layers is a potential security risk, and you couldn't easily translate data from one agency to another. It also gets really expensive." By building one central platform, they created the ability for federal officials to safely access and use sensitive information. "We're trying to highlight solutions that can be scaled," explains Innocent. "We want to encourage the use of tools like MAX.gov in agriculture, education, transportation . . . across the federal government."
MAX.gov’s utility was was spread through word-of-mouth by career officials on the ground. Today it has been used by organizations ranging from Health and Human Services to 30 different American Indian tribes. When the appropriate non-governmental agencies can easily access secure information, multi-agency, multi-stakeholder collaboration becomes the rule and not the exception. MAX.gov and other government innovations like it are engendering “open-source” mentality in government. From openly sharing tech across agencies to opening government data to the wider public, our government becomes more amenable to new ideas, new perspectives, and new ways of doing business.
Bringing Democracy Forward
Is the process of bringing new ideas into government political? Innocent believes so, but stresses that it should be seen as a non-partisan matter. "Most representatives agree that we need a centralized process to allow new technology that is effective, appropriate, and secure. However, by focusing so much on technology, we tend to forget about the citizen and whether the technology we are building is actually solving problems. Oftentimes it's the small, boring stuff at the edges, like MAX.gov, that makes our government more effective and more responsive to citizens and their needs.”
Innocent also stressed the importance of bringing the next generation of technologists into the work of government. As the federal workforce begins to retire, he believes we need a younger, tech-enabled group to continue the work of making our government run.
"The Departments of Defense and Treasury still use floppy disks because they're secure. Our data is constantly exposed. We have to be up-to-date on data security," he emphasizes.
We asked Innocent whether technology can save democracy. His answer? "It's not a technology question. It's a people question. It's a function of ethics, morality, and a system we subscribe to. It's not the job of technology to save democracy; it's a function of the people who comprise a democracy to save it. Technology has made it easier to communicate and to organize people, but you still have to lead, you have to think, and you have to build structures and systems that work. Technology enables us, but it won't save us." Democracy in action takes many forms. Some of that work is less visible, less sexy. It's slower. Even so, it's every bit as important.
Learn More UPDATED APRIL 2, 2020
With the goal of encouraging tech innovation and modernizing the archaic ways our government works and collaborates MAX.gov was launched in 2007 and further integrated during the Obama Administration.
An office of federal employees within the General Services Administration (GSA) that collaborates with other agencies to fix technical problems, build products, and improve how government serves the public through technology.