The unified government in Washington, D.C., is a rich source of coverage and running commentary by journalists, policy analysts, cable pundits and late-night TV comedians. Search for the phrase “What Trump means for …” and Google returns an even 132 million results, including clues and speculation about the potential impacts on state and local government. If past patterns persist, there will be a temptation in some quarters to mimic the work of the new White House Office of American Innovation — whatever that becomes.
Alternatively, we could do something else and look left to the geographically and alphabetically challenged state of Washington. Same namesake, strikingly different politics, and with a tendency to push forward in its DNA.
This “other Washington” has been my home for 25 years. It is a place where interesting things happen in the public and private sector, sometimes playing against each other. This is an idea-rich environment — ideas that can be helpful in thinking through the complex issues at the intersections of public disclosure and transparency on one hand, and automation, immigration and the world of work on the other.
Legislatively, the 2017 session saw changes to the public disclosure law in exempting inventory and security information about the state’s IT infrastructure, helping local governments improve the management of electronic records, and introducing new fees for electronic copies of public records. In addition to that trifecta, the Legislature also ordered a feasibility study for the creation of a statewide open records portal.
Some study. Some pilot. Some do.
Put former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in the latter category. He bankrolled the creation of USAFacts, a portal to visualize government revenue and spending, showing where money comes from and where it goes. Designed by Seattle-based Artefact, the civic data tool is elegant and simple, providing a comprehensive summary of financial performance of government programs in a way that is friendly to mobile users and familiar to users of Form 10-K that’s required for financial reporting by corporations.
Ballmer’s former boss, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, thinks that if corporations are improving their financial performance by automating work once done by humans, then they should pay a robot tax. Gates recently told Quartz that taxing companies’ use of robots could do a number of useful things: slow the near-term spread of automation and subsidize jobs that are uniquely well suited for people to do like caregiving and working with kids in schools. Gates, a longtime optimist about technology’s role in society, says government cannot rely on business to produce positive social outcomes by itself and will need to take an active role in ensuring the protected jobs will be directed to workers who need them the most.
Immigration plays an important role in a complex labor market, and brings with it challenges of its own. Seattle is also home to a new immigration tech startup called Boundless (See related story.). Co-founded by a former Obama tech policy adviser and an ex-Amazon executive, Boundless is a digital tool for navigating what its founders call the “opaque, intimidating and high-stakes” immigration process. With $3.5 million in early funding, Boundless is taking on the tangly issues related to family unity under federal immigration laws by helping U.S. citizens and resident aliens apply for visas for their foreign-born spouses.
Finally on the work front, an early experiment in holacracy at the Washington state government technology agency is now the subject of a formal Harvard study, complete with a control group to measure the impact of peer-to-peer self-management on getting things done. The formal results are expected later this year and could help make public service attractive to workers who would otherwise not consider it.
There is an old bit of legislative language in Washington state about imagining the future and then building it. That is still going on here in large measure. And it warrants the occasional look to the West Coast even if your mental map defaults to the east.