This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

US government technology has a deserved reputation for being expensive and awful.

Computer systems sometimes work with software from the Sputnik era. Has a Pentagon project to upgrade military technology little to show after five years. During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans struggled to get government help, such as: unemployment insurance, Vaccination appointments and Footsteps because of bureaucracy, inflexible technology and other problems.

Whether you think the government should be more or less involved in the lives of Americans, taxpayers deserve good value for the technology we pay for. And we often don’t understand. It’s part of Robin Carnahan‘s job to address this problem.

As a former Missouri Secretary of State and technical advisor to the government, Carnahan has been one of my guides on how public sector technology could work better. In June it was then Confirmed as administrator of the General Services Administration, the agency that oversees government acquisitions, including technology.

Carnahan said she and other Biden government officials wanted the technology used for fighting wars or filing taxes to be as efficient as our favorite app.

“Bad technology sinks good politics,” Carnahan told me. “Our mission is to make government technology easier to use and to be smarter in the way we buy and use it.”

Carnahan highlighted three areas that she wanted to address: First, change the process for government agencies to buy technology to recognize the need to keep technology updated. Second, you simplify technology for people using government services. Third, make it more attractive for people with technical expertise to work for the government, even temporarily.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. People in the government have promised similar changes, and it’s not a quick fix. Technical dysfunction is also common a symptom of bad politics.

But, in Carnahan’s view, one way to build trust in the government is to prove that it can be competent. And technology is an essential part of showing that.

Building that skill starts with something very boring – budgeting and sourcing. Carnahan told me last year that governments tend to finance the digital infrastructure the way they made bridges. You buy it once and try not to think about it much for the next several decades. This mentality is inconsistent with the technology that works best with constant improvement and maintenance.

Carnahan said she was trying to get the message across in Congress and government agencies that a predictable amount of government funding, distributed over time, is a better approach to buying technology. Carnahan said the government should think of tech like Lego sets, with parts that are regularly replaced or remodeled. (Hey, the metaphors work for me.)

She also hopes technology will help relieve headaches that make it difficult for people to access public services.

As an example, Carnahan mentioned that she wanted to significantly increase the number of public services accessible through them login.gov. There, users can create a single digital account to interact with multiple services, e.g.

And like many people in the government, Carnahan makes one Pitch for people with technical know-how to work for the public service. Their appeal is part pragmatism and part patriotism. “Government is the best way to influence people’s lives,” said Carnahan.

She said remote working has also made government jobs more realistic for people who don’t want to move to Washington, and so there are programs like that US digital service and the new one US Digital Corpsthat allow technologists to work alongside officials for short periods of time.

Carnahan does not pretend that changing decades of relative dysfunction in government technology will be easy. However, she believes this is critical now as technology is often the primary way people interact with local, state, and state governments, whether it be registering for a election or helping with a Medicare application.

“Getting the damn websites working is the basic thing people want the government to do these days,” she said.


  • How do we protect children online? US law prohibits internet services from more or less users under the age of 13. My colleagues from the New York Times think talked to young children who are online despite the restrictions, and argued that the US is learning from the new UK child protection guidelines.

    (There’s a backstory about these smart kids in the Opinion Today newsletter. You can Sign up here.)

  • A hammer falls on spyware: Apple sued NSO Group, an Israeli company whose software was misused by governments to spy on the smartphones of human rights activists, journalists and dissidents. My colleague Nicole Perlroth writes that the lawsuit and the most recent blacklist of the NSO. by the US government could be steps to better monitor the global spyware market.

  • Thoughtful gift ideas! Brian X. Chen, the Times consumer technology columnist, has nice ideas for tech-related Christmas gifts these are not devices. (I bet Brian’s wife will love her digital photography lessons. Don’t spoil the surprise.)

I’m obsessed with the NASA spacecraft that launched today a mission to hit an asteroid the size of a sports stadium to throw it off course. Yeah, it’s a bit like the plot of the movie “Armageddon”.


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