As we approach another highly-contentious presidential election, concerns rise over the blatant threats to our democracy: the lingering effects of “the big lie,” the specter of another attempt on the Capitol and growing support for authoritarianism at home and abroad.
Underpinning these dramatic threats is Americans’ concerning loss of faith in government’s ability to serve them – driven in part by the gap in operational capacity between the public and private sectors. Important services like benefits applications remain cumbersome and rife with confusion.
The public interprets these interactions as inherently hostile and, as Professor Joe Soss explains, as “evidence of how government works more generally,” reducing their propensity to vote and degrading our representative democracy. What we do now will determine whether emerging artificial intelligence and other advanced technology will widen or narrow the divide between government and its citizens.
What we should do is clear. To change public attitudes, the federal government must change their approach. By working in partnership with the technology community, nonprofits, and philanthropists, the public sector can increase its digital capacity, attract tech leaders to federal agencies, and leverage AI to strengthen government capabilities both internally and externally. Tech Talent Project’s recent report on philanthropy’s role in this effort is a helpful roadmap.
Digital capacity issues require philanthropy to take a sector-wide approach. The addition of a senior technical leader at USDA, for instance, may be a worthwhile investment for funders interested in food assistance, but recruiting and placing these leaders can’t be done well when efforts are focused on just one agency. If philanthropic programs targeted at a specific policy domain instead put some funding aside to strengthen government’s tech capacity broadly, the return on investment would be significant.
It is folly to invest in technology without first investing in the teams and people behind it. The federal government will spend $74 billion next year on IT. That’s a lot of products and services, but an underinvestment in technology teams limits the potential of the technology itself. Attracting and placing professionals who have the right skills, a human-centered approach and a commitment to the public interest is a foundational investment in the design and implementation of programs and services.
Responsible use of AI demands even greater internal tech capacity. In essence, every time you hear about the capacity of AI models growing exponentially, remember that the tech capacity of our government had better grow right alongside it.
To this end, investing in tech capacity requires improving the hiring process. According to the Tech Talent Project’s recent report, the “techlash” and widespread layoffs have pushed many technologists out of the private sector, while the pandemic and global instability have reminded them of the need for a government that works.
The pipeline is robust, but the funnel is narrow. Government’s antiquated and lengthy hiring processes mean that many serious candidates can’t hold out. Partnerships with philanthropy and trusted nonprofits can help address these barriers, making it quicker and easier to hire the most qualified candidates. They are desperately needed.
What will a more technologically capable public sector look like? Building data and AI expertise across agencies will ensure policymakers know how to regulate new and emerging technologies and safeguard our country from any national security threats they may present.
Externally, these modern tools and capabilities will manifest as better constituent experiences, Michigan’s 1,204 question emergency aid applications. After partnering with private nonprofits and tech experts to optimize the user experience, Michigan’s application was reduced by 80 percent.
Government has been playing digital catch-up for decades. Federal leaders need to finally make digital capacity a priority and pursue partnerships and avenues that support that goal.
AI is going to make customer service faster, better, and cheaper for any organization with the competencies to leverage it. If government is not among those organizations, we risk not just falling further behind, but widening the trust gap so far that it cannot be bridged.
We should absolutely be worried about the blatant threats to our democracy that dominate the headlines and keep our pundit class busy. But we must understand the underlying causes that drive them, and recognize all that we can do to address them. At this critical juncture, we can’t afford not to.
Ali Noorani is the program director of U.S. democracy at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. He is an Aspen Institute/ADL Civil Society Fellow and a Democracy Fellow at the University of Chicago Center for Effective Government.
Jennifer Pahlka is the author of Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better, a former US Deputy CTO, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and the Federation of American Scientists, and a Democracy Fellow at the University of Chicago Center for Effective Government.