Robert Atkinson is an expert in technology policy. He also is the president and founder of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based technology policy think tank. Atkinson has been appointed by the last three presidential administrations to committees for the nation’s infrastructure, economy and innovation. He is the author of Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage.
Government Technology spoke with Atkinson recently about IT innovation and why the U.S. lags behind its international counterparts.
Do you think there are certain sectors in government that have the ability to be more innovative? For example, when it comes to e-government, is it easier than, say, procurement?
There are a lot more restrictions in areas like procurement where you have layers of all these rules and things where you don’t really have those restrictions. I think that that is true. This is going out of the e-government space, but think about transportation and really adopting cutting-edge intelligent transportation systems using IT. We are not very far along with that, and most governments do very little about it.
In terms of our international counterparts, where is the U.S.? How do we stack up?
We stack up very poorly. Other countries — like Japan, Korea, Singapore — and places like Stockholm and London, have really done more than we have. In Singapore, for example, every bus is on your smartphone; it’s on a display and you know when it’s coming. In Japan, all the roads are instrumented. There are a few places [in the U.S.] that are doing some interesting things here and there. San Francisco has an online app for where street parking is available, and Boston does this thing where if your iPhone goes over a bump when you are in your car, it can automatically report potholes. It seems to me that there are a lot more potential areas for innovation, but they don’t seem to be happening — or if they are, they are happening in one city and not on a broad scale, like 200 cities at once.
Why do think other countries are ahead of us?
I think that it’s partly because [other countries] have more of a national-subnational partnership. Take a country like Denmark, where the Danish central government … put in place a program that gives grants to local governments that use IT to lay off the most workers. If you think about that, it’s like a step from grand theft auto or larceny. We [in the U.S.] would never have a conversation like that, about how you could use technology to automate government work so you could cut taxpayer dollars — by actually making work that’s essentially redundant through technology. So what the Danish government does is they fund the best practices that do that, and then they encourage the adoption of those practices throughout their country.
We don’t do that, and e-government is but one thing. I remember going to a conference and a guy from a county got up and said his county had a great application that allows all citizens to be looked at in a customer relationship management (CRM) model — a whole customer model where [the county] can see everything that people are getting and optimize it. I was like, “Why isn’t somebody just developing that for every single county? They are all the same and counties all have the same programs. Why aren’t we having that program for every county in the country right now?” And the answer is because the counties don’t work together, the cities don’t work together, they don’t look at this as a collective action problem, they look at it as they are all doing their own individual things.