At the same time, we need a national privacy regime. Citizens should own the information about them, so those who gather and trade in such information must follow national standards on privacy protection, such as citizen opt-outs for reselling the information, and provide online access through an at least partially standardized user interface so citizens can view the information, correct it, and monitor who is using it -- at no cost to the citizen. Yes, that means we'll all get fewer preapproved credit offers in the mail, but that's a good thing.
Where the tech industry can make a big difference is to reduce the friction of citizen interaction with government, which would save the government, businesses, and individuals time and money. Paying taxes, complying with various disclosure rules, and so on should be easy to do, while being secure. Activities such as promoting XBRL for public companies' financial disclosure and requiring electronic submission of tax forms are good examples of what should be encouraged, but the feds could do better in making the information systems easier to connect to and use.
Here's just one example: The Social Security Administration has a powerful retirement calculator for Windows that is impossible for a layperson to use, and a simple Web application that doesn't really help in retirement planning. Why not redo the sophisticated application as a Web app, in a way that most retirees could use? That would be more efficient for them and require less effort in Social Security offices to do the same calculations for those who make an appointment.
The trick is in the systems design and delivery. Governments have had spectacular tech implementation failures, such as the ongoing saga at the FBI. And even successful systems, such as the Veterans Administration's Vista health management system, have been stung by data corruption issues. Part of the blame lies with contractors who overpromise and underdeliver -- a hallmark of the defense industry and an outcome the Obama administration needs to prevent in its tech spending.
But the government itself also deserves blame. Often, regulators overcomplicate such systems, making them impossible to create or at least use. The feds must not repeat the mistake it made with the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, which makes something as simple as sending a check for your taxes into an amazingly bureaucratic, slow process for electronic funds transfer. In the case of EFTPS, the issue is validating payment account information, which the feds do by making you wait several weeks to get a paper confirmation with new access code -- an excessively inefficient approach compared to how banks and investment firms let people validate payment account information. It's easier to simply mail in a check, which means that EFTPS is a failure.
Obama has hired a national process officer to help streamline government processes. Taking that approach on federal technology initiatives is key to success. Perhaps Apple could lend some help, and companies such as Google and 3M that let employees use work time to explore personal projects could ask employees to use that time to help the feds for the national good.
And the federal government should consider replacing some of its legacy systems to get rid of the integration burden that they cause. The upfront cost is worth the long-term benefits of integration savings and transaction easing.