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The cost of knowing

We had another opportunity this week to think about what delivering 21st century government means with the news that the city of McKinney, Texas proposes to charge $78,974.05 to Gawker Media to fulfill a FOIA request relating to officer use of force at a pool party last month.

One way we talk about 21st century government is through the effect that thirty-odd years of progress in computing has had on the world. It’s an undeniable fact that the world we live in has been changed by two things: cheap computers, connected together. These cheap computers and the connectivity between them reached a tipping point where most Americans access the internet now, and most of that access is happening via some of the cheapest, most convenient and most usable computers ever made: the ones in smartphones.

There is no going back. So just as business is adapting to a digital world, our government must adapt as well. Digital is no longer a choice, or something that is added on. Instead, “digital” is now one way – and increasingly and inescapably, will be the normal way – that government delivers its services to us. In other words, a government’s “core competency” – its purpose, the things that it does for us - must include ownership, control and understanding of the way their services are digitally delivered. Because if a government doesn’t own, control and understand the digital delivery of its services, then it has ceded responsibility.

So my reaction to the news of the City of McKinney’s response to the FOIA request is disappointment. The bulk of the $78,974.05 is made up of $63,583.50 to program a computer to search through emails from 2005 to March 1, 2014 and $14,726.80 to pay for the actual time spent by a computer running that program.

We should not be satisfied with a government – of whatever size or political persuasion – that does not have the ability to search through its own correspondence. Being able to search and read your own correspondence is a basic competency. The issue, as some have speculated, as to whether or not McKinney is obstructing or obfuscating the request is important. But an equally important issue in its own right is that governments must now have basic digital competency. They must be able to understand, control and direct technology to deliver government of the people, for the people.

If we take McKinney at their word (for some people, it is difficult to do so, because being able to search and read your own correspondence is a basic competency, and shouldn’t cost so much money) and that “emails maintained by the City prior to March 1, 2014 are not in a format searchable by City personnel,” then we must ask two things. The first doesn’t really matter as much as the second: 1) how did this happen, and 2) what are we going to do about it?

There might be lots of equally plausible reasons as to why McKinney might find itself inexplicably in the situation of not being able to search correspondence older than 14 months. But something we have seen over the last few decades in governments not just in America but around the world has been the systematic dismantling of technical capability and increasing reliance on vendors and outsourcing. The simplistic reasons for this change are a combination of focusing on core competencies, wanting to save money and the belief that IT is a solved problem. That IT had reached the status of being a solution that could be bought and could be treated like a commodity, like cars for transport. Whilst commoditization certainly became true for hardware (and even more so now, with cloud computing), it has only happened to a small degree in the area of software and services.

So this is the situation that we find ourselves in: working with governments where technical capability and understanding has been reduced – for whatever reason – over the last couple of decades. In 2015, it’s certainly plausible that, due to a series of decisions that made sense at the time as short-term optimizations, a City is left unable to search through the emails that its staff wrote a mere 14 months ago without paying for outside help.

I can’t emphasize enough that the decisions that led to the current situation might have been perfectly rational. And that governments aren’t a special case – this has happened in the commercial sector too, every time a company has been saddled with an IT system that just doesn’t do what it was supposed to do and the company doesn’t have the ability to do anything about it.

This $78,974.05, then, the cost of searching through emails from 2005 to March 1, 2014, is just one example of what we mean by 21st century government. It’s just one example of a basic competency in how the world works now so that our governments can effectively govern. We have to get the basics right.

If this makes you angry, if this makes you feel things should be better, if this makes you feel that we deserve government that understands technology to work better, then you can help.

If you’re a technologist — a designer, developer or researcher — you can use your skills by working with local governments to develop new tools and services that help cities and counties deliver key public services across health, economic development, and safety and justice. We’re looking for people like you to join our 2016 Fellowship, and applications are open until 15 July.