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What should America turn to for web advice? That's right: GOV.UK – says ex-Obama IT guru

Uncle Sam could learn a thing or two from Brits

Meet the nerd with 'more power than a geek has ever had in the US government

So what is the United States' version of the UK's GDS and Mike Bracken? It is the United States Digital Service and Mikey Dickerson – who was brought in last year to deal with the disaster. In case you don't recall, the website through which the newly minted Affordable Care Act was reliant collapsed on its first day and struggled to register people in time for a crucial deadline. It had to be completely overhauled in record time.

Dickerson now has "more power than a geek has ever had in the US government," explained Pahlka. But Dickerson and the department still have significantly less sway that their UK counterparts. (To be fair, she does note that UK's top-down approach appears to have been successful but in the US, a bottom-up approach is more culturally relevant.)

The geeks shall inherit the Earth

The debacle brings out the second most important aspect of governing in the 21st century: more geeks in government.

"You can't govern now unless you have people who understand technology," Pahlka enthused. "If you can't implement the policies or the laws passed, then you can't govern." serves as a perfect example of where a new law and signature policy was at risk due to the inability of Washington to deliver technical excellence.

Among the many reasons that the project failed was that there was no ability for the many sub-contractors working on it to communicate with each other: something that would be a basic consideration in tech projects in California. And in fact, agile testing is supposed to be a part of all new federal IT projects, although compliance seems to be somewhat lacking.

An incredible 94 per cent of IT projects carried out by the federal government fail under their own definition of "fail", and 40 per cent of them see the light of day, Pahlka said. When prodded by an audience member that the same number of startups fail, she fired back: "Yes, but most of them don't blow through $2bn."

Her observation that there is a severe lack of people in government and politics with technology knowledge was also reiterated this month by worldwide web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee at a conference in London.

“We need more people in parliament who can code," he pleaded, "not because we need them to spend their time coding, but because they have got to understand how powerful a weapon it is, so that they can make laws that require people to code to make machines behave in different ways.”

Congress continues to shine

The 114th US Congress starting in January will feature but a single member with a background in software engineering: Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA) of Louisiana. One out of 535 is not great.

Pahlka's solution while back in the Bay Area is to try to push a sense of civic duty onto Silicon Valley's best and brightest: "There has been an economic boom but it's not benefitting everybody. The idea is to get people to think that it's your duty to go into government, even for a short time, in order to fix things." ®

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