Government IT: Once A Laggard, Now A Leader?

At one time government IT was the last place to look to find innovation. With little incentive to save money or do much beyond keep the lights on, governments across the world have happily dumped money into a cabal of legacy IT vendors without much thought for consequences. All too often, those consequences were dire.

But something seems to have changed. Today, from the City of Chicago to the UK government's Government Digital Services group, government IT has become a hotbed of open innovation. For the first time, private industry has much to learn from government IT.

Yes, you read that right.

Uncle Sam's CIO

The Obama administration gets some credit for helping to kick things off. In March 2009, the U.S. named Vivek Kundra its first-ever chief information officer. Kundra then set to work with a cloud-first policy that saw him shutter dozens of resource-heavy datacenters, moving more workloads to the cloud, in an attempt to save taxpayers $18.8 billion by 2015. Kundra has since left, his legacy lives on.

It has also crossed the Pond. Years ago, the UK was roundly criticized for its too-cozy relationship with Microsoft. Today, the UK's Government Digital Services Group, which is tasked by the UK government with transforming its digital services, espouses a set of design principles that would be right at home within the most progressive of Silicon Valley startups, and which cut against the "buy-whatever-Ballmer-tells-us-to" mentality that sometimes pervaded UK procurement policies:

  1. Start with needs
  2. Do less
  3. Design with data
  4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  5. Iterate. Then iterate again.
  6. Build for inclusion
  7. Understand context
  8. Build digital services, not websites
  9. Be consistent, not uniform
  10. Make things open: it makes things better

These aren't merely mottos inscribed on the wall and forgotten. The government has actively been espousing them, in part by hosting its code on GitHub. But then, which governments aren't hosting code on GitHub? As O'Reilly's Alex Howard points out, GitHub is increasingly popular with the government IT crowd, with the total number of government repositories booming on the popular code-sharing site:

Source: GitHub. Chart by Alex Howard. Source: GitHub. Chart by Alex Howard.

All of which is interesting, but becomes even more so when you dig into what is being hosted there. Take Chicago, which has not only open sourced code, but also datasets for things like building footprints, bike paths, etc. That's a great step toward open data, but Chicago is even more ambitious. The City's WindyGrid project, for example, a "real-time infrastructure for the publication of data that delivers information in the moment of need." Sounds promising, but what does that mean?

As The Wall Street Journal notes:

[As an] example, city officials might look at a high crime area, while also mapping out the number of liquor permits for a neighborhood, along with the amount of nearby abandoned buildings. Using transcripts from resident complaints or 911 calls, officials could also see trending concerns for the area, like broken lights or stolen garbage cans, and the times the incidents are occurring. If the high crime area also has a high number of liquor permits, for example, officials could then see if other neighborhoods also faced both issues, allowing them to create a more effective response for those areas.

Big Data being put to use in real time, at considerable cost savings and improved productivity for the City. Oh, and WindyGrid will be open sourced, too, so that other government organizations can use it.

This kind of project would be interesting no matter who was doing it, but the fact that it's a government organization is impressive. Same with GDS in the UK. Or with the US' own shift to cloud computing.

It's hard to pinpoint a particular reason for this. Perhaps the embrace of cloud and open source is simply a way to squeeze more productivity out of ever-tightening resources, given the global recession over the past few years. Or perhaps government IT got tired of seeing its private enterprise peers playing with all the shiny new toys. Either way, it's a welcome change to government as usual.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.