Principles of technology that can improve governments at every level

Improving government through technology will require change in how we think about services provided at the city, local, state, and federal levels.

The following 6 principles are key to using technology to enable better government services:

  1. Build for change
  2. Services are for people
  3. Procure wisely
  4. Transparency by default
  5. Make decisions with data
  6. Legislate for simplicity

Build for change

Technology will change. Our workforce will change. Our cities and services will change.

We are unlikely to move our governments from a yearly budget to a rolling forecast and budget that changes quarterly. However, we can take steps to make sure that our systems and people are better prepared for constant change.

Iterative design and development is a must to allow technology systems to keep up with our complex service needs.

Projects should be planned at the scale of one year or less. All projects that take more than one year to initially implement will fail. Positions should be hired with a focus on flexibility and mobility. Permanent headcount is fine, but we should never assume that a position will exist forever based on technology and services that constantly change.

Services are for people

A focus on user-centered design is a must. Citizens should be able to engage with services. The government agencies that produce services should have embedded product managers, designers, and developers that are helping them connect with the users.

User centered design will have the added benefit of creating services that cost less and are optimized for the day-to-day use of both service providers and recipients.

Procure wisely

Procurement policies in government must shift to a model that recognizes the value of commodity services at the core level, then an open source development of web services. We must foster a “proprietary-last” mentality when it comes to potential vendor lock-in.

Our procurement policies should focus on foundational technologies rather than COTS applications that are sold as best practice, but seldom have widespread use.

By focusing on a open source first approach, governments can ensure that the value built for their citizens can be shared with and improved by other government agencies with similar needs.

Procurement of this type will be less focused on reducing large risk and more focused on producing a high return on investment.

Transparency by default

Data should be open by default with a strong bias to protecting personal information. At first, these two goals may sound like they are in opposition. When we begin any new data collection, we should first think about how that data will be sanitized and depersonalized to allow it to be shared.

By making our open data available as public web services, we will be allowing private industry and opportunity to innovate with information that was previously unavailable.

Transparency relates to software development as well. Using open source and contributing back results in less hidden costs in technology and better security through public review.

Transparent practices and open data extends the reach of government services to the benefit of everyone.

Make decisions with data

Data is the key to effective systems. We must ensure decision makers can access it and act on it.

Any decision requested of our elected officials or administrative leaders should be accompanied by data. Requests that are not supported with vetted data or that have explicit unsupported assumptions should be suspect.

Legislate for simplicity

In order to actively improve government through technology, we must have technologically literate elected officials that are willing to change laws to simplify complex systems.

Unchecked complexity can lead technology projects to failure. Loopholes and exceptions are difficult to program into software. Software that is complex costs more to maintain and change.

In order to be good stewards of our resources, we must choose the simplest, most cost effective services that our government is prepared to deliver. This requires a high level of systems thinking and a willingness to do less in order to expedite the delivery of those services.


By following these principles, and constantly evaluating our approaches looking for improvement, we can make government services more effective. We can build and buy great services for our citizens that can simply and cost effectively connect them to the information and services they need. We can do this important work with an organization that is optimized to continually change and willing to make the difficult policy and legislation changes necessary.