What's New in Civic Tech: Securing the Presidential Innovation Fellows, Open Data as a Bridge Between Parties

Plus, San Francisco crowdsources feedback on tech spending.

by / December 1, 2016
U.S. CTO Megan Smith and former CTO Todd Park meet with Presidential Innovation Fellows. Jeff Chen/Via Whitehouse.gov

Federal tech leaders push to secure Presidential Innovation Fellows program under Trump

During his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump didn’t say much about federal tech. But he did express a general dislike for a lot of what Barack Obama has done — a broad legacy that includes many an embrace of technology in government.

So ahead of the uncertainty of the upcoming administrative change, leaders involved in that movement are pushing to secure at least one part of Obama’s tech legacy: the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. The group consists of 112 innovators spread out across the country — and a few internationally — that seek to solve problems. The group was involved in the creation of 18F.  

On Nov. 18, the White House put out its call for applicants for the Spring 2017 cohort of the program. Then, on Nov. 30, a bipartisan trio of senators introduced legislation to codify the program into law.

The bill, S. 3486, follows the TALENT Act that passed in the House of Representatives on a vote of 409-8 in July. Following introduction of the bill in the Senate, civic technologists circulated a letter asking Senate leaders to pass the bill.

“The program recruits thought leaders around the country and pairs them with innovators inside government to leverage fellows’ private-sector expertise,” the letter reads. "The resulting partnerships have helped to save taxpayer money, fuel private-sector job growth and modernize the way federal agencies interact with the citizens they serve."

Can open data bridge a partisan divide on federal agency revenue?

Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., wants to give the U.S. Congress oversight of all fines, fees and settlement revenue that federal agencies currently spend on their own.

Problem is, it’s tough to understand how much money that even is — there’s a data problem.

That was one big reason Democrats sitting on a joint House of Representatives subcommittee argued against the bill, H.R. 5499, on Dec. 1. The revenues the bill targets are spent on a complicated network of programs — everything from paying for national park maintenance to cleaning up superfund sites.

“It’s a sweepingly broad and radical proposal that I believe would seriously impair the ability of government to function,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., during the hearing.

As Democrats fought the measure, Republicans and a representative of a conservative think tank supported it.

“We’re insulating the agencies from accountability from the congress, but more importantly from the American people,” said Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla.

The lack of knowledge about just how much money the agencies spend, and on what, was a complicating factor during the hearing. But Hudson Hollister, founder of the Data Coalition, presented another idea to the subcommittee — one that could address concerns of both the Democrats and the Republicans.

That is, to make agency revenues and expenditures more transparent.

Hollister pointed to the DATA Act from 2014 as a possible solution. The act will, starting in May 2017, require federal agencies to publish detailed, standardized spending information on USASpending.gov. If Congress were to amend the act to include detailed data about revenues as well, he argued, it could see exactly how much the agencies were collecting in fines, fees and settlements, and where that money was being spent.

That would answer the questions from Democrats on the committee as to how agency programs would be impacted with their revenue subject to Congressional oversight. It would also give Republicans some measure of the transparency the bill is looking for.

“It seems to me the more complex this whole situation is, the more difficult it is to have oversight of it,” said Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., during the hearing.

The bill has been cycling through House committees since June.

San Francisco crowdsources feedback on tech spending

As it prepares to set a five-year strategic plan, the city of San Francisco is looking to the Internet for feedback on its tech spending.

On Nov. 28, the city’s official Twitter account posted a link to a SurveyMonkey survey asking people for their thoughts on technology priorities. That, in turn, will be used when making budgeting decisions.

The survey asked for users’ opinions on its technology goals — access and transparency; efficiency and effectiveness; and the support, maintenance and security of critical information technology infrastructure — before going on to ask about personal experiences with various municipal services.

The survey came out just a couple days before a ransomware hack of the city’s transit system disrupted operations.

Citizen feedback is, through technology, becoming a larger part of the budgeting process. Cities as large as St. Paul, Minn., and as small as Tamarac, Fla., for example, have implemented Peak Democracy’s Open City Hall tool that allows citizens to comment directly on municipal proposals and spending plans.

Ben Miller Staff Writer

Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.