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Dark Headlines Aside, Gov Tech Is Making Things Better

Public-sector technology work is a force multiplier for improving the lives of residents nationwide. That's important to keep in mind, especially in the face of news like unrelenting cyber attacks and workforce woes.

California state capital, surrounded by state government buildings in Sacramento, CA
Shutterstock/Merge Digital Media LLC
If you needed an anthem for the last couple of decades, you could do worse than a 1983 Bruce Cockburn tune with the refrain, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” At least at first blush. We would all be excused for fatigue and a darkening worldview after years of a pandemic, societal schisms, political polarization, environmental catastrophes and significant economic volatility.

But we could be wrong about that. So says Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician, professor of international health and statistician. In his 2018 book Factfulness, Rosling documented what he calls the 10 reasons we’re wrong about the world and why things are better than we think.

The book details how some very bad things are getting better. It is a long list, including legal slavery, HIV infections and the rates of murders, divorces and children dying. Likewise, there are fewer deaths from plane crashes, battlefields and smallpox. Rosling also cites data that indicates there are fewer nuclear arms and oil spills. Add to that a reduction in the amount of leaded gasoline and, by extension, ozone depletion, and you have signs that the planet can be a good place for our children to live. Speaking of which, child labor is also down.

At the same time, Rosling offers numbers to indicate that some good things are getting better. Consider, for example, that the land mass of nature that is protected has risen from only 0.03 percent in 1900 to 14.7 percent today. Factfulness is a much-needed corrective to dominant end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it narratives. It does not say all our problems are solved, but should encourage us to keep working on them.

The book also reminds us that these improvements are not the result of heroic individuals acting alone. Each of these areas of improvement have their champion, their Jane Goodall, if you will. Bill McKibben and David Suzuki are senior statesmen in the campaign against climate change. Lucy Blacio and Adélaïde Sawadogo are leaders in the fight against modern slavery and human trafficking. Mathilde Krim and Larry Kramer are among those who have worked on AIDS reduction. On the economy, we need not look further than this year’s Nobel prize winners, Douglas Diamond and Philip Dybvig.

We do the same thing. Government Technology’s Doers, Dreamers and Drivers recognizes 25 exemplars each year for their important contributions to the art and science of making government better. But it is bigger than this relative handful of individuals.

The public-sector IT community has been properly lauded for inventive work in responding to COVID-19 and helping the government workforce pivot to work-from-home and hybrid environments. Much the same can be said for other areas of public service where technology has made a marked difference in the way things work.

It is more than IT working more effectively with the business side of the house, however important that may be. Government’s use of technology is not about individuals or agencies or even jurisdictions. It is ultimately an institutional play. Institutions can and do make good things happen, often acting together with others, all of them connected. Technology animates institutions.

Normal doesn’t have to always get worse. Old, tired institutions often need to be reanimated. Those that are keeping pace are doing so because of the forcing and multiplying power of gov tech. And the institutions that will help us navigate into the future will rely on the same animating elixir — ever evolving, always disrupting.

It may even be safe to dust off another in the Cockburn song book for this ditty as we think about what’s next:

Sun’s up, looks okay
The world survives into another day
And I’m thinking about eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me.
Paul W. Taylor is the Senior Editor of e.Republic Editorial and of its flagship titles - Government Technology and Governing.