The Bright Side for Civic Geeks in the Mess

People who had ignored government tech were suddenly all ears.

President Obama on a call from Air Force One in 2012. Credit: The White House (Pete Souza)

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The San Francisco-based non-profit Code for America, as we have discussed at length, focuses its work on pairing with cities and other local governments to up their technology games in pursuit of solutions to pressing social problems. But getting the ear of the political class isn’t always easy, which points us to one unexpected silver lining for civic technologists in the botched launch and scrambled recovery of this fall.

Jack Madans, manager of government partnerships at Code for America, spoke on Thursday at Fordham Law School’s “Smart Law for Smart Cities” conference. He said that the federal flub on rolling out Obamacare’s website was an opportunity for his organization.

“All of the sudden, people who I couldn’t beg to talk about government technology were everywhere talking about government technology,” Madans said. “Rahm Emanuel’s quote that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste was ringing in our ears.” (Actually, it was economist Paul Romer who said that.)

The Obama administration’s busted site prompted journalists to look for similar failings elsewhere, including on the local level where CfA works. Madans pointed to a January New York Times story that looked at faulty state unemployment compensation websites.

Reporter Frances Robles used the federal health care insurance site’s woes to point to “something much broader,” namely “how a lack of funding in many states and a shortage of information technology specialists in public service jobs routinely lead to higher costs, botched systems and infuriating technical problems that fall hardest on the poor, the jobless and the neediest.”

According to Madans, the effect isn’t lasting. “Already it’s faded a bit into the background,” he said.

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Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.

Tags: san franciscoshared cityhealthcarecivic techcode for america

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