Geeks in Government

There was an interesting piece in the Financial Times on Friday. Titled “Let’s get geeks into government” it tells the story of Brett Goldstein, formerly the IT Director of OpenTable, who in recent years has become well known in digital government circles for his work with the City of Chicago on various data driven projects- in particular the WindyGrid tool.

The piece pushes the idea that there is a generation of “entrepreneurial whizz-kids” who could bring their considerable technical skills to help ‘save’ Government IT as a way of ‘giving something back’ apparently in the manner of hugely successful US bankers who move into the public sector later in their careers once their fortunes have been made (really by the way?).

A big problem I have with the article is that it seems to correlate becoming “fabulously wealthy” with talent. It seems to me, as someone who has watched this world with interest for years, that the big winner startups often have no more talent or skills than those that implode spectacularly.

There are though things I agree with here. Clearly there is a great deal of talent tied up in start-ups and the web giants and encouraging some of them to move into public service would be hugely helpful. And yes the reasons why they don’t want to are plentiful. Salaries. Bureaucracy. Legacy systems. Procurement.

But to suggest Goldstein is a lone voice does the community a disservice. The piece I linked to earlier about the Healthcare.gov ‘trauma team‘ and the willingness of high profile, successful ‘geeks’ to give up their time, leave their careers and families and go and do something they felt was important is an example. As is the work of Code for America all over the United States.

In the UK the Government Digital Service is filled to the brim with staff who could earn more at agencies, start-ups or in the City. They do it because they believe it is important.

Late last year James Darling, who himself took a role at the Ministry of Justice despite a successful career in the private sector, gave a talk at the Serpetine Gallery that became a successful post on Medium. In his talk he explained why he felt it was important for technologists to take up the challenge that the public sector offered if they really wanted to make an impact on society and not just make venture capitalists richer.

This is all just the tip of the iceberg I know. It remains difficult to recruit digital talent in to the public sector, especially outside of London, and there is hardly a flood of people abandoning their exciting startup jobs or well paid roles in Financial Services. The change though is that people are no longer dismissing it out of hand and every new convert brings us closer to the goal of ‘digital by default’ public services.

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