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Power to the Public: New Book Makes Case for Public-Sector Tech

The book — co-authored by Tara McGuinness and Hana Schank — details examples of how tech and innovation can streamline governmental service delivery, and why it is important the country embrace it.

FlickrCC/Metal Chris
President Joe Biden’s transition team embedded an unprecedented number of technologists and data scientists in its work, and now a key figure within that effort has co-written a new book detailing the importance of public interest technology.

The book is Power to the Public: The Promise of Public Interest Technology — published earlier this month by Princeton University Press — and it bills itself in promotions as a "powerful new blueprint for how governments and nonprofits can harness the power of digital technology,” making its case by looking closely at a number of specific instances where this has occurred. Essentially, within the book are examples of how tech and innovation work in the public sector can streamline governmental service delivery, ultimately making government and the country in a broader sense function more effectively for real people.

The book was authored by the team of Hana Schank, director of strategy for the public interest technology program at New America, and Tara McGuinness, who founded the New Practice Lab at New America and helped coordinate the Biden transition.
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In a recent conversation with Government Technology, McGuinness stressed the importance of the subject matter within the book as it applies to the current moment. As the nation grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant economic fallout, this topic has never been more important. The need for public interest technology that aids governmental service delivery is clear, she said, and as such, one of the goals of the book is to expand the number of people interested in doing this sort of problem-solving work for government.

Another aspiration of the book is to refute any notion that public interest technology is some kind of specialty, McGuinness said, showing instead that it is simply how the work must be done to make government function in our digital age. This, she noted, was also a guiding belief within the Biden transition, which embedded technologists and data scientists on every agency team, “not just because it’s good to have these special roles, but because the policy requires thoughtfulness around data.” The Biden transition was also the first to have a dedicated chief technology officer.

Some of the nation’s foremost leaders on governance as well as service modernization have rallied around the book and its ideas, praising it and strongly recommending it to those in the government, academia, nonprofit and other adjacent sectors.

Former President Barack Obama wrote on Twitter that the book “illustrates how nonprofits and governments can use technology to solve some of the most pressing issues of our time.”

Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under Obama, also praised the book in an email to GT, calling it “... exactly the right book at the right time,” while also noting that “the examples in this book are clear illustrations of the kinds of innovations that are within every government’s grasp. Sometimes the innovations we need aren’t fancy — all they require is that you focus on the people you’re trying to serve, and then deploy data and design in the interest of serving them well.”

And while a lot of the folks weighing in on the book have their most prominent experience working at the federal level of government, McGuinness stressed that the lessons are fluid, and that work at the federal level can inform states, counties and municipalities.

“There’s a lot to bring from the best practices at the county and civic level to the federal government, too,” she said. “It’s a really healthy exchange.”

DJ Patil — who helped build LinkedIn and also served as chief data scientist for the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy — said the book stresses a vital idea: In order to modernize, the nation as a whole needs to do a better job with blending tech expertise and governmental experience.

While much progress has been made in this area of late — the United States Digital Service is nearly eight years old, What Works Cities is in over 100 places and several states have newly formed digital service equivalents — the need is poised to become even more dire. Patil said government is facing a situation in which a mass amount of systems need to be modernized — or in some cases created — and this effort will take a significant workforce of qualified people who possess that blend of tech and policy know-how detailed in the book.

As the book suggests, bolstering the country’s digital infrastructure will require expanding far beyond current government and adjacent folks, much in the same way bolstering the country’s physical infrastructure will create new jobs.

“Could you imagine asking the Army Corps of Engineers to replace every bridge?” Patil said.

It would likely be impossible, and so it is also true of enhancing U.S. public interest technology.


Civic Tech
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.