Yelp, Google Hold Pointers to Fix Governments

Christopher Mims at the Wall Street Journal: “When Kaspar Korjus was born, he was given a number before he was given a name, as are all babies in Estonia. “My name is 38712012796, which I got before my name of Kaspar,”says Mr. Korjus.

In Estonia, much of life—voting, digital signatures, prescriptions, taxes, banktransactions—is conducted with this number. The resulting services aren’t just more convenient, they are demonstrably better. It takes an Estonian three minutes to file his or her taxes.

Americans are unlikely to accept a unified national ID system. But Estonia offers an example of the kind of innovation possible around government services, a competitive factor for modern nations.

The former Soviet republic—with a population of 1.3 million, roughly the size of SanDiego—is regularly cited as a world leader in e-governance. At base, e-governance is about making government function as well as private enterprise, mostly by adopting the same information-technology infrastructure and management techniques as the world’s most technologically savvy corporations.

It isn’t that Estonia devotes more people to the problem—it took only 60 to build the identity system. It is that the country’s leaders are willing to empower those engineers.“There is a need for politicians to not only show leadership but also there is a need to take risks,” says Estonia’s prime minister, Taavi Rõivas.

In the U.S., Matt Lira, senior adviser for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, says the gap between the government’s information technology and the private sector’s has grown larger than ever. Americans want to access government services—paying property taxes or renewing a driver’s license—as easily as they look up a restaurant on Yelp or a business on Alphabet’s Google, says Neil Kleiman, a professor of policy at New York University who collaborates with cities in this subject area.

The government is unlikely to catch up soon. The Government Accountability Office last year estimated that about 25% of the federal government’s 738 major IT investments—projected to cost a total of $42 billion—were in danger of significant delays or cost overruns.

One reason for such overruns is the government’s reliance on big, monolithic projects based on proposal documents that can run to hundreds of pages. It is an approach to software development that is at least 20 years out of date. Modern development emphasizes small chunks of code accomplished in sprints and delivered to end users quickly so that problems can be identified and corrected.

Two years ago, the Obama administration devised a novel way to address these issues:assembling a crack team of coders and project managers from the likes of Google, and Microsoft and assigning them to big government boondoggles to help existing IT staff run more like the private sector. Known as 18F, this organization and its sister group, the U.S. Digital Service, are set to hit 500 staffers by the end of 2016….(More)”