by Tanya Filer
After an arduous campaign, the Democrats have won the US presidential election. The win may be a boon for digital government in the US. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has been a long-time technology advocate in the Senate and California judiciary. Based on her track record, we anticipate a renewed emphasis on digitalisation of the state, and technology policy that is both knowledgeable and broadly supportive of Silicon Valley.
Focus areas may include:
- Investment in human capacity building for digitalisation at every level of government. The United States Digital Service (USDS), a federal government digitalisation effort begun under the Obama administration, remains in place, and is likely to be strengthened. But digital government teams may also be empowered at the state and local level. In 2019, Harris sponsored the Digital Services act, aiming to draw on the model of the USDS to give state and local governments resources to establish similar teams. Local governments could apply for grants to be administered by USDS, to modernise their operations through the uptake of digital and emerging technologies. Placing strong emphasis on building internal capability, the bill stipulates that 50% of awarded funds must be spent on ‘digital’ staff salaries.
As Vice President, Biden also described a need to put local government at the fore of addressing crippling infrastructure and education problems. The Covid-19 crisis has only emphasised the value of local governments being empowered to make decisions with, and about, the communities that they serve, and for digital technologies to be at the core of public service delivery. Local digital upskilling and resourcing may also promote accountability—knowledge technology procurement at the local level can lead to greater government openness.
‘GovTech’ entrepreneurs may benefit from an approach that equips local governments with more tech knowhow. The smaller scale can suit innovative young companies. Purchasing decision-makers at the local level can often also make quicker decisions than their colleagues in federal (or even state) government, more in tune with the demands of the start-up lifecycle.
- Open government data. In 2015, Harris, then Attorney General of California, launched OpenJustice. a criminal justice open data initiative designed to release key data on the state criminal justice system in an interactive, user-friendly format. At the time, Harris described the initiative as presenting “a common set of facts, data and goals so that we can hold ourselves accountable and improve public safety.” The Obama administration also encouraged open government methods to increase public accountability, establishing the multilateral Open Government Partnership.
If well implemented, the rejuvenation of a federal level open data agenda could contribute to deepening trust in government. It could also spur public entrepreneurship through enabling a broader cross-section of society to quantify–and help to address–core aspects of government functioning. As the open government community knows, however, opening government data will do little alone. An emphasis must be placed on making data useable, and ensuring they are actually used.
- Data privacy. Harris has been vocal in calling for technology companies to operate in a way that “the American consumer can be certain that their privacy is not being compromised.” She has emphasised that regulation must be implementable—using mechanisms that lawmakers and policymakers “can ensure” work. It remains to be seen whether her statements—which do not call to break up ‘Big Tech’ companies—will translate into attempts to pass data privacy legislation.
- A knowledgeable and cordial relationship with Big Tech. When Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, was called to a Senate hearing in 2018, it was the seeming tech illiteracy of the chair of the Senate Republican High Tech task force that went viral. But Harris’s questioning of Zuckerberg was sharp. She questioned him on data privacy and transfer, user notification regarding data breaches, and platform competition. She also criticised Facebook and other technology companies for being “evasive and “non-responsive” in response to her 50 written questions as part of the Social Media Committee hearing on social media influence.
Yet Harris has a deep supporter base in Silicon Valley. Previous donors including Sheryl Sandberg. Google’s parent Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Facebook reportedly “make up five out of the top seven contributors to Biden’s campaign committee in 2020“. Harris’ brother-in-law is the chief legal officer at Uber, and previously one of her key political advisors (this hasn’t stopped her opposing Uber on state legislation previously).
We can expect revolving doors, with alumni of the Obama administration’s tech corps returning to Washington following stints in the Valley over the past four years. The character of the relationship between the White House and Silicon Valley is likely to be cordial – perhaps too much so for supporters of strong regulation. It is undoubted, however, that the quality of technology policy conversation coming from the White House will receive a boost.
- Social media savvy. At this time of physical distancing, using social media smartly—both to broadcast and listen to constituents—matters for leadership. Political social media has become almost synonymous with populist stylistics over the past four years. Harris and Biden both have highly engaged followers, and (as in real life) a far less inflammatory online presence than Trump. Supported by digital engagement experts, they are well placed to help reimagine social media as a force for greater empathy building, not (only) division and sensationalism.
A community of digital government luminaries, nurtured by the Obama administration, is ready to support Biden and Harris. Their administration should draw on that support, and seek to develop a new generation of contextually sensitive government technology and technology policy leaders at every level of government.