The rapid advances of the digital age have radically transformed our private and work lives by making information more accessible, communication faster, and businesses more competitive. But while our private lives have been so quickly transformed, government has been slow to respond. Embracing the technological advances of the last few decades promises to make government more efficient, transparent, responsive, and effective.
But for technology to reach its full potential, and for government to reliably harness it for the good of the public, we need to transform government itself. Our twentieth-century government—bureaucratic, inefficient, overly centralized, and captured by special interests—is not positioned to make the best of the technological advances that have taken place despite it. Our complacent monopoly of a government needs to be brought into the twenty-first century. We need to cut regulations, make civil servants accountable, fix broken public procurement processes, and, for the sake of accountability, experimentation, and local autonomy, return power to state and local governments.
There is no more important place for that transformation to take place than in our K-12 education system. We send our children to school full-time for over a dozen years so that they can be set up for success in life. Yet we continue to fall short in providing every child an education worthy of that time. Advancements in technology promise to transform the classroom by allowing each student to receive an individualized education tailored to their unique talents and needs. Yet familiar problems of dysfunctional, broken government threaten to keep our children in an outdated system that puts bureaucrats, party politicians, and special interests before the mission of giving every American child an education worthy of the most accomplished nation in history. We need to shift power away from failing schools and school districts and back to parents and educational innovators. We need to give parents the power to choose which school to send their kids to and the information they need to make the right choice.
Technological Opportunities for Government
Making Government More Efficient
Border security is an immense political and practical challenge. Over the last few decades, efforts to secure the border have repeatedly ended in failure. President Trump has famously proposed building a physical wall along large parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. His proposal includes upgrading hundreds of miles of existing fencing as well as building hundreds of miles of new wall where there are insufficient natural barriers to illegal crossings. His plans have been largely stymied by a lack of political support for the wall and the money required to build it, estimated to be about $20 billion. Concerns have also been raised that a wall so long can have severe environmental effects, such as preventing animal migrations.
Anduril, a startup defense contractor, has an alternative solution to building new wall across hundreds of miles of rural borderlands: a smart wall. Called Lattice, their proposed system consists of portable towers equipped with radar, laser-enhanced cameras, and communications equipment. The system uses artificial intelligence to detect motion and distinguish humans, cars, and animals. Border patrol agents would be notified immediately of illegal crossings and be able to track the crossers on their smartphones. Congressman Will Hurd, a former CIA agent with a computer science degree who supports using Anduril’s solution, points out that “a concrete structure 30 feet high that takes four hours to penetrate costs $24.5 million a mile.” Conversely, Anduril’s smart wall would cost only $0.5 million per mile.1
Though more mundane than border security, parking inefficiencies impact millions of people. Everyone has driven around in circles looking for a parking spot. For some, it is even a daily ritual. Further, as spots fill up, the increased difficulty of finding the remaining spots, which may not even exist, causes some capacity to be left unused. To correct for this, parking capacity must be overprovisioned. Between time wasted looking for empty spots, the construction of excess parking capacity, the opportunity cost of other uses for the land, and trips forgone because of predicted difficulty finding parking, the cost of this inefficiency is very high. Furthermore, traditional parking systems have high administrative costs, requiring the installation and maintenance of payment terminals as well as constant patrolling by parking attendants.
Solutions for these problems are emerging. Mobile parking apps reduce the need for physical parking meters while also notifying parking attendants when spots expire. Parking guidance and information systems use cameras or inductive loops (more commonly known as the mechanism by which smart street lights detect waiting cars) can detect exactly which spots are occupied and which spots are not, allowing drivers to be given exact directions to an open spot.2 These intelligent parking systems also allow dynamic pricing, so that parking spots can be efficiently allocated during busy times.3
Technology can also make the interaction between citizens and government agencies simpler and more efficient. Information on government services is provided on more than 4,500 websites on over 400 domains, and one review found that the overwhelming majority were “not fast, mobile friendly, secure, or accessible.”4 That study concluded that 91 percent of the most popular federal websites “failed to perform well on at least one of the metrics analyzed.”5 Improvements to these websites would make them both more accessible and more efficient to use for citizens seeking to engage with their government. One effort the government has made to improve the experience for users is the 2017 creation of a single sign-on, which gives citizens access to multiple government services with a single login. 6 But much work remains to be done.
Making the Most of Data
Intelligently directing public resources in response to the opioid epidemic can make the difference between life and death. As the wave of drug overdose deaths has swept across the nation, police, health departments, and other public services have struggled to stay ahead of it. To help, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area team developed an app, ODMAP, that, with the help of first responders, maps the time and location of drug overdoses. Especially because overdoses are linked to high-potency batches of illegal narcotics, mapping overdose deaths allows governments to see where those batches are being distributed and how they are moving. Beyond helping catch drug traffickers, this information helps governments decide which police units need to increase their on-hand supply of naloxone, where training resources need to be deployed, and how to prioritize public outreach efforts.7
Detecting violent crimes in real-time can also be a matter of life and death. In 1992, seismologists at the Menlo Park office of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) applied techniques from seismology to create a proof of concept for the real-time detection of shootings, which had become a serious issue in the area.8 Seeing the commercial promise, Robert Showen expanded on their work and founded ShotSpotter.9 Today, the New York Police Department (NYPD) uses ShotSpotter to determine the exact source of gunfire in the city and can even identify the direction the shooter was moving if the shots come from a moving vehicle. This system allows emergency services to immediately respond to an incident, more quickly treating victims, identifying witnesses, and collecting evidence than if they had to wait for 911 calls.10 More than 90 cities use ShotSpotter today.11
In the first study of its kind, the city of Bellevue, Washington, is using footage from its streetlight cameras to identify dangerous intersections that need to be reworked. Through a partnership with Together for Safer Roads, a joint effort of several companies, machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques are being applied to the raw camera footage to identify near-misses, i.e. incidents where cars almost hit other cars or pedestrians. The study should avoid the imprecision, subjectivity, and reactiveness of traditional studies of dangerous intersections, which rely on expert analysis and extrapolation from reports of actual accidents.12
Technology has also increased safety from hazardous materials. Earlier this year, U.S. Senator Jim Risch’s office was quarantined as emergency responders worked to determine whether a mysterious white substance was hazardous.13 Modern technology could greatly expedite these situations as there are now handheld Ramon spectroscopy devices which can detect and identify a wide range of substances, including narcotics and explosives. In Twin Falls, Idaho, first responders will share such technology and make the data available to surrounding regional response teams, which Fire Battalion Chief Mitchell Brooks describes as an effort to “bridge the gap between our local hazmat and bomb squad.”14 The handheld device will greatly increase the speed of first responders in identifying unknown substances, which currently requires, in many cases, involvement by state experts, who can take several hours to arrive on the scene. Current Ramon spectroscopy devices are typically able to identify the substances in its database within about a minute.
Empowering Citizens to Shine Light on Government
Governments at both the state and federal level have rapidly begun to adopt open data policies, which make government data available to the public. At the federal level, the 2014 DATA Act has two main requirements: (1) the Treasury Department and White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) must establish government-wide data standards for the information that agencies report to them and the General Services Administration, and (2) Treasury and OMB must make this data publicly accessible and downloadable for free. This data is available now on data.gov, and several states and cities have sought to implement similar open data requirements.
One such city is Seattle, Washington. The state of Washington has several sites dedicated to open data, providing citizens with a wide variety of free government data ranging from spending figures to environmental conditions to employment opportunities. The city of Seattle has made its police data accessible to the public through My Neighborhood Map, which allows users to see locations where 911 calls have been placed as well as the locations where police reports have been filed in the last twelve hours. The Seattle police department also regularly releases data on uses of force as well as historical crime data.15
As allegations of police misconduct have become politically prominent, more police departments are adopting body cameras. In many communities there is a lack of confidence in the police, and body cameras may serve to build more trust in law enforcement. Body cameras can resolve factual disputes about conflicts between officers and citizens, which in turn can save resources during the judicial process. Body cameras not only save time otherwise spent on fact-finding, but they can also provide valuable corroborating evidence for prosecutors. 16 Furthermore, evidence suggests that the presence of body cameras may reduce the likelihood of conflict between citizens and officers altogether, as citizens “often change their behavior toward officers” when they learn they are being recorded.17
Technological Empowerment Instead of Central Control
Finally, new technologies can solve problems and make stronger government action unnecessary. Governance benefits not only when government can wield some new technology itself, but also when technological advances improve efficiency in private businesses, empower consumers, and level the playing field.
Consider the controversies surrounding for-profit colleges and universities. In response to the perception that these institutions were overcharging students and providing poor instruction, the Obama administration imposed new, onerous regulations on them that would have seen their access to federal student loans largely cut off if their students did not meet certain employment targets. These regulations were criticized for singling out for-profit institutions even though students graduating from non-profit colleges and universities also find themselves increasingly heavily indebted for an education that failed to teach them useful skills.
The current administration’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has instead taken a different approach. She has replaced the Obama-era rules and punitive measures with a requirement that all college and universities receiving federal student loans publish data about their graduates’ debt levels and earnings at various points in their careers, broken down by course of study. Instead of deciding on behalf of the whole country which schools are worth going to, Secretary DeVos is leveraging technological advancement in the private sector to empower students and parents to decide for themselves whether a particular school or major is worth the money.
Transforming Government for the 21st Century
Advances in technology and communication present a tremendous opportunity to improve the quality of government, but the beast must be willing. Longstanding problems with government in America stand as obstacles to this project and need to be addressed.
Fewer Rules and More Common Sense
Since the Progressive Era, the administrative state has grown dramatically in America. This “fourth branch” of the federal government is now responsible for creating and enforcing the majority of the laws that Americans are subject to. At over 185,000 pages, the Code of Federal Regulations now dwarfs the U.S. Code in size and, in many ways, importance.18 The regulations themselves run the gamut from overly prescriptive to arcane and unintelligible. In some industries, the rules are so vague that “the law” is whatever the relevant regulator happens to say it is at that moment. In other areas, the regulations are so long and detailed that a good relationship with the regulator to ward off enforcement actions may be the best compliance strategy.
This represents a fundamental change in how government relates to businesses in America. Addressing wrongful actions by businesses that cause harm was traditionally the province of the court system, where the individuals and groups so injured could get compensation. This was an outcome-driven system, focused on finding responsibility for real physical harm visited on real people and property. Jurors, the final arbiters of liability, grounded the process in common sense. Now, businesses have to be mindful of thousands upon thousands of prescriptive rules, the violation of which, no matter how harmless and petty, can carry severe penalties. For every bureaucrat making rules, there are many more compliance officers in companies across America running through checklists and creating red tape to avoid breaking any of the regulatory state’s ever-growing list of diktats.
As a result, the United States has now sunk to a dismal 53rd in the world for ease of starting a business.19 Regulations, like sediment in a harbor, have built up over time, making it difficult for Americans to accomplish even basic activities without consulting a rulebook. If businesses lack the flexibility to develop new technologies and the new business models that come with them, if they are subject to the arbitrary and capricious whims of Washington, D.C., bureaucrats, then we will miss out on advances that could better our lives and give us an advantage over our competitors.
The Trump administration has made progress toward reducing the regulatory burden, but more remains to be done. For example, the President could establish an independent commission, modeled after Australia’s regulatory commission, to conduct a regulatory “spring cleaning”, periodically making recommendations to Congress. Congress could establish a fast track means to approve or reject the recommendations. The President could create a regulatory budget and place a cost cap of zero to encourage the elimination of costly rules if new rules are promulgated. Congress could pass legislation that ends the “sue and settle” practice that stymies modernization of regulations. The President could streamline the permitting process by synchronizing reviews and creating transparent timelines.
A More Dynamic and Accountable Civil Service
The American private sector sees a constant hiring and firing of its workforce as managers seek to acquire and retain high performing employees. A 2016 study by the Department of Labor showed that approximately 1.3 percent of private sector employees are discharged from their jobs each year.20 This stands in stark contrast to the public sector, in which job security is treated as a right. Public sector employees were discharged at a rate of approximately 0.4 percent, which is less than a third of the rate in the private sector.21 The federal government, and the governments of many large cities, are bound by laws which make it virtually impossible to fire government employees for poor performance.
The problem is not tied to any specific geographic region or government department. In Chicago, it takes 84 steps to fire a park worker for incompetence.22 In New Hampshire, a Department of Labor employee brought her case to the Personnel Appeals Board to protest a formal warning she was given for sleeping at her desk. In her complaint, she alleged that “she had not been given sufficient time since her first warning to correct her problem of sleeping at work.”23 Stories abound of ineffective teachers who are virtually immune from being fired because of the strength of teacher tenure in public schools. In New York City, hundreds of teachers who have been removed from the classroom for misconduct or incompetence are paid to sit in an empty room for six hours a day while the city painstakingly processes claims and appeals related to their incompetence.24
Unlike in the private sector—where performance and cost-savings are rewarded, and waste is punished (if not by the company then by its competitors)—employees in the public sector have little incentive to pursue efficiency and improvement of government. Doubtlessly, many try to do the right thing anyway, out of a sense of duty and love for their work, but they inevitably run up against the absurd procedures and stubbornness of the bureaucracies they toil in.
Civil service reform is needed. Government agencies should be staffed for the benefit of the public, not run as lifetime jobs programs for bureaucrats. The vast majority of Americans work in the private sector and have to justify their paychecks with their hard work. It is time that public sector employees are held to the same standard as the rest of us. Several states have taken the lead. Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin famously weakened the collective bargaining power of the public-employee unions, which had over the years led to mismanagement and waste at the taxpayer’s expense. In 2012, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed legislation that moved most government employees at-will status.25 In 2001, I signed legislation in Florida that removed civil service protections of employees, gave supervisors more discretion to set pay based on performance, and eliminated harmful rules that put seniority before taxpayer interests.26
Government as a Savvy Consumer
Public procurement is notoriously wasteful and inefficient. Companies that want to do business with governments are subject to special requirements and regulations. Consequently, achieving and maintaining status as a government contractor or vendor can be incredibly burdensome. It is often not worth it for established firms in an industry to do so. In other cases, only the largest, most dominant firms in an industry can afford to play by the government’s special rules. These requirements ultimately translate to higher prices and, just as importantly, fewer choices for governments. Ultimately, it is the taxpayers who pays these inflated prices and the public that suffers from the lower quality goods and services being provided to the government.
The federal government spends an enormous amount on its outside contractors—often far beyond the market rate for virtually identical goods and services in the private sector. This practice is highlighted in the information technology space, where a 2011 study revealed that the federal government pays outside contractors nearly twice as much as internal government IT workers.27 The same study further revealed that the government pays nearly five times its internal rate for outside contractors providing claims assistance, and three times as much for outside contractor lawyers.28
The procurement process itself is also highly inefficient and oftentimes confusing, sometimes varying even amongst departments in the same jurisdictions. Procurement is typically a multi-step process and the lack of uniform “workflow processes” only makes things more muddled. While government employees waste time figuring out in which order the paperwork has to be filed, a lack of efficient communication between departments can frequently result in redundant purchasing. Because of the wide variation in procurement processes across departments, cunning vendors can potentially take advantage of the lack of communication between purchasers to acquire multiple government contracts for redundant goods and services.29
While technology cannot solve all of the difficulties associated with government procurement, it can reduce many of the headaches. Technology can certainly make communication better within and amongst jurisdictions, which can greatly reduce the amount of redundant purchasing. Oakland County, MI has been sharing applications and technology between its agencies through cloud computing.30 By using cloud-based technology, Oakland County has eliminated the infrastructure and upfront costs of information-sharing for local governments, creating a more streamlined information system that combats redundancy.31
Technology can also improve the application process for potential contractors. By digitizing forms that are currently only on paper, the government could make bids easier to sign and submit. A simpler, digital application process lowers the barrier to entry for potential suppliers, which could drive up competition and potentially save the government and taxpayers money. Furthermore, digitizing applications provides the government with an opportunity to provide feedback to bidders more easily and efficiently. Governments could use digital tools to quickly review bids and determine which ones offer the best value.32
Without improvements that make the procurement process easier, the barrier to entry remains too high for most technology companies to participate. In its current form, government procurement is a very slow process, often taking several years. Startups are dependent on steady revenue, and often cannot afford the time and resources needed to participate in the procurement process.33 Because of the rapid pace at which startups rise and fall, the average procurement length of two years is far too big a risk for most up-and-coming technology companies to take.34 Furthermore, the current procurement process requires companies to outline not only what they will produce for the government, but precisely how they plan to produce it. For lean and innovative operations this serves as a deterrent because it limits their capacity to come up with creative solutions further on in the process.35 The hyper-prescriptive nature of the current procurement process does not enable the types of innovation that most startups would be able to offer.
Fifty States, Fifty Chances to Get it Right
One of the major problems with the federal regulatory state is that with its insatiable appetite for issuing rules, it will eventually get around to any given policy area and then speak all at once for the entire nation. Once the regulator acts, it becomes hard to understand the foregone costs of no-regulation, the opportunity cost of alternative regulatory schemes, and so forth. A few shuttered businesses or stagnating sectors might generate some analysis, but much less is thought about the enterprises not contemplated or never pursued because they are made impossible by the federal regulatory regime. Further, the Washington, D.C. bureaucrats making these decisions do not necessarily understand the different interests and values that might make different approaches better in various parts of the country.
If we want government to be dynamic and creative in reaping the fruits of the 21st century, both in its decisions to act and in its decisions to abstain, then we need to return power to the states. Where possible and reasonable, decisions should be made closest to those affected by them. Beyond making decisionmakers more accountable and responsive to the values of the governed, state and local control allows for the effects of government decisions to be understood and contrasted with results in other places that have taken different approaches.
Lessons and Opportunities for Education
Among the most important duties government has assumed is the education of children, and our collective future in no small part depends on the fulfillment of this duty.
While the United States spends more per student than all but a handful of countries, student outcomes lag behind. Roughly one third of students complete their K-12 experience truly college or career ready.36 This is borne out by the burgeoning skills gap and the corresponding unfilled jobs and by the remediation rates in our community colleges and four-year universities. There is no silver bullet to enhance student learning, but the Florida experience suggests that robust accountability and empowering parents with an array of choices for their children’s education can be a catalyst for dramatic improvement.
For the last 20 years, Florida has embarked on the reform journey starting with the A Plus Plan for Education. In short order, we graded schools A thru F based on proficiency and learning gains. Through the school recognition program, schools received $100 per student for earning A’s or a better grade. This has become the largest bonus program for teachers and school personnel in the country. We ended social promotion at the end of third grade and embraced a command focus on early literacy. In subsequent years, we added accountability provisions by creating incentives for students passing AP, IB and career certifications.
Along with the accountability measures, Florida created the largest private school choice programs in the country, dramatically expanded charter schools, funding the largest private sector universal voluntary Pre-K program and expanding the Florida Virtual School.37 Today, roughly 50 percent of all students attend schools chosen by their parents.38
Education outcomes can improve by faithfully staying the course on accountability and expanding parents’ choices in children’s education.
The NAEP test, known as the Nation’s Report Card, measures reading and math aptitude for fourth and eighth graders. In 1999, nearly half of Florida fourth graders were reading severely below grade level. Twenty years later, Florida fourth graders have improved by more than two grade levels and now rank fifth in the country. In 1999, Florida’s fourth graders were way below the national average. In 2019, Florida fourth graders had improved by three grades and were seventh in the country. Similar gains have been experienced in eighth grade as well, with low income and minority students leading the way.3940
In 1999, Florida’s graduation rate was 50 percent, the lowest in the country. Twenty years later, the graduation rate had improved by 30 points.41
In short, Florida has had the greatest improvements as measured by the NAEP test and is one of the few states to have seen a narrowing of the achievement gap—in a state with nearly 60 percent of its students qualified for the free or reduced lunch program.
Bringing Education Into the 21st Century
Imagine if time was the variable and learning was the constant. Imagine a technology-backed learning process where students learn at their own pace and in their own way. With the use of big data analytics, it is possible to customize the learning experience for each student.
“Teaching to the middle” is a well-known problem. Teachers, faced with a large classroom of students with widely different levels of knowledge, levels of interest, and levels of ability, are traditionally trained to come up with a single lesson plan. The default option for teachers has been to develop that lesson plan with the average student in mind, i.e. “teach to the middle.” But the middle barely exists, dwarfed by the number of slower students, on the one hand, and quicker students, on the other. Students who learn more quickly are left bored and unsatisfied, their potential wasted. Meanwhile, students who learn more slowly fall behind, learn to dislike school, and fail to rise to their own potential.
The end result of the traditional social promotion system, where seat time determines advancement, is huge variance in learning outcomes. According to Education Reform Now, 25 percent of high school juniors are academically ready to start college-level coursework, but only a small percentage have the opportunity to do so.42 On the other hand, a plurality of their peers will graduate high school neither college nor career ready.
Technology in education now promises to make personalized learning accessible to everyone. This is in large part due to the rise of “blended learning,” a model where students get personalized instruction as well as in-person small-group instruction from a teacher. Blended classrooms allow teachers to have students working at their own pace while still benefitting from aspects of traditional instruction. There are many individual success stories of personalized instruction. Kareem Farah and Rob Barnett, math teachers in Washington, D.C., developed their own blended instruction model that allows individual students to move at their own pace. After experiencing personal success with it, they now run The Modern Classroom Project, a nonprofit that helps other teachers implement their model.43
In order to bring personalized learning to scale, significant changes will be required. We need to think less about funding seat time and more about funding the acceleration of learning. In addition, end of year assessments need to be modified to determine mastery when it occurs. Accountability systems will have to change to reward mastery as well.
We also need to give parents the power to choose where to send their children and the information to make the right choice. Attempts to reform the government monopoly on education will likely fail in America unless that monopoly itself is broken. School choice does this by putting power in the hands of parents and the educational innovators who will compete to provide the best education possible by leveraging techniques like personalized and blended learning that are made possible by technological advancements.
As a country, we have moved beyond the industrial model of societal governance. Now is the time to do the same to educate the next generation of Americans.
Jeb Bush served as the 43rd governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007 and is the founder, chairman, and president of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.