Competing with the likes of Facebook and Google is tough, but it’s more crucial than ever.
In the wake of a deadly fire, New York City officials set out to determine what buildings were most likely to burn. After an analysis determined that being in foreclosure and having been built before 1938 were among the factors strongly correlated with fire risk, the city used the data to prioritize inspections. Those inspections then yielded a 13-fold increase in the issuance of orders to vacate.
Predictive analytics is just one of the ways technology can improve both government efficiency and the quality of public services. But to achieve these goals, governments must attract and retain top-notch technology talent, and as a 2013 report prepared by a consulting firm for the Ford and John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur foundations documents, that just isn't happening.
For every success like New York's building inspections, there are stories such as the initial failure of HealthCare.gov and the more profound and lasting problems with several of the states' Affordable Care Act online health-insurance exchanges.
Among the causes that Freedman Consulting identifies for the severe public-sector technology talent shortage are non-competitive compensation, a lack of access to ground-breaking work and a government culture that often doesn't welcome potentially disruptive innovation. Government is also highly bureaucratic and risk-averse, thanks in part to the threat that elected officials might face punishment at the ballot box for any failures.
To those with technology skills, on the other hand, entrepreneurs like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sergey Brin are the heroes, and workers are more attracted to the kinds of innovative, open and creative environments that facilitate development of the next eBay or Tumblr. In 2008, just 1 percent of those with Ph.D.s in math or computer science worked in state or local government.
Governments must address the cultural problems that prevent them from recruiting and retaining technology talent, but there are other issues that have an impact. Since traditional public-sector pensions aren't portable, for example, they exacerbate the wage gap for those who might otherwise want to spend a few years in public service. Creating portable retirement systems would go far toward creating a class of technology professionals who rotate between the public and private sectors, as is the case in so many other fields.
Connections between academia and the public sector also should be strengthened. Government technology professionals need not be public-policy experts, but new academic programs that include public policy basics would make it easier for technology graduates to work for government. Prior to graduation, more public-sector internships and fellowships would also make young people more aware of career options in government.
But strengthening the technology talent pipeline will require more than just making young people aware of public-sector options. To attract the talent it needs, government must take advantage of enhanced partnerships with academia to become more sophisticated and make the changes that would create an environment that is more welcoming to the tech-savvy.
Currently, too many government officials don't even know what their technology needs are. Until more do, it will be impossible to create plausible public-sector career ladders to attract technology professionals.
Governments are fairly limited in what they can do to address the gap between what they can pay and what those with much-needed technology skills can earn in the private sector. But there is much they can do to create a culture that is more tech-friendly. And culture can go a long way toward attracting the best and brightest to spend at least part of their careers working in government.