The Internet began as a government project. So why has government fallen so far behind?

September 18, 2013

Adrian Fentry said he would use social media every day if he were in office now. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

In the 1970s, the Internet was primarily a project of the U.S. military. Large businesses adopted the technology later, and ordinary consumers didn't get access until the 1990s. For much of the 20th Century, that pattern was the norm: The government could often use its vast resources to develop cutting-edge technologies that were only later adapted to civilian use.

But that trend is starting to reverse itself, according to Aaron Levie, chief executive of the cloud storage company Box. Today, cutting-edge technologies are often developed first for consumer products and then only gradually adopted by governments.

On Saturday,  I spoke with Levie and former D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, now an adviser at Andreessen Horowitz, to discuss how they see cloud technology changing the way governments work — and how politicians and bureaucrats can take advantage of those changes. The two discussed these issues this week at Boxworks, an annual conference talking about how technology changes the way we function.

The change in the relationships between consumer and institutional tech is just one trend Levie’s noticed.

“Look at the flow of innovation and technology,” Levie said. “Now it’s a reverse trend:  Consumer tech goes into businesses. This wave of changes to computing and adoption of new mobile devices will change the IT side of the government.”

“One thing that government can take from the private sector is the idea that the customer is always right,” Fenty said. Technologies like crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, he noted, offer tools for analyzing citizens in the same way a company analyzes its core customers.

Governments at all levels are coming around on moving files and processes to the cloud, but that’s just the first step, Levie said. Now that the foundation is in place, governments have to think about how best to use that tech to collaborate and make things better for citizens.

That can be a slower process, Levie said. “I think something that drives some of the slowness is the structure. You use tech, fundamentally, to get ahead. If you think about areas in government where getting ahead is the goal, where using tech is a strategic advantage, they don’t have time to waste on old technology.”

But to show the value of technology in government, Fenty said, you need look no further than social media, which is much more widely used now than it was when he was in office.

“Now if I was in office, I know I would use it every day,” Fenty said. “Maybe I would replace press conferences and releases, even. I just think it would make citizens feel more engaged if everyday I was tweeting something fantastic about the city, or about problems I’d heard.”

Government and technology, of course, are also interacting in other ways — not all of them beneficial.

“There’s more government and regulation — that ties into what we’re doing in the Valley more than ever before,” Levie said. “Before we were Internet specific, the things we did didn’t translate as much to the real world. As there’s more and more tech that interfaces with the real world, it has a regulatory environment that has to paid attention to.”

While there must be diligent thought about how tech moves in government, Fenty said that there must be a faster way to implement new technology.

“In the private sector, Aaron can make that decision in a week, maybe just run it by a couple of board members,” he said. As people more familiar with digital formats and new technology come into positions of power, he hopes, governments should  get better at reacting to quick-changing technologies and applying some of those private sector attitudes to their own work.

“I don’t want government to slow Silicon Valley down,” Fenty said. “We have to get better at predicting how tech is going and changing regulations faster.”

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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