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Government computer systems

by on September 13, 2010

For those of us here in this room, we who work at the intersection of technology and government, how should we define the change that we seek? There are three steps we can take if we are serious about government as platform, and the first is to finish the opengov revolution.

There is so much left to do. We need bulk data standards and we need to enforce them. We also need much more data.

There is no excuse for the IRS to be selling dirty DVDs. There is no excuse for the Patent Office not to have all their data on their own Internet server as part of their constitutionally mandated mission to promote the progress of science.

We need to update our FOIA laws and give them Internet-age teeth. When we release something on FOIA, it should be published, not just go to the requester.

Finishing the opengov revolution is just step one. Our government is the caretaker for vast stores of information in our national libraries, archives, research laboratories, and museums. These stores lie fallow today, but they could become a platform that provides access to knowledge for all.

Prior efforts at digitization have been halfhearted. We should be spending a minimum of $250 million per year for a decade on a national scanning initiative.

If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can launch the Library of Congress into cyberspace.

The Smithsonian, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the National Library of Medicine, the Government Printing Office must all work together to develop a strategy compelling enough to make Congress, the foundations, and the public all clamor to help them create this new platform.

If a national scanning initiative is to have teeth, we also need to make clear that works of the federal government have no copyright. The Smithsonian Institution still asserts copyright over their holdings.

Taxpayers give the Smithsonian $750 million per year and the best location on the planet, for which we deserve no less than that our nation’s attic be open for all to use.

After finishing opengov and starting to scan, the third thing we need is an open systems revolution. We must reboot how we build computer systems. This has to be an all-hands-on-deck open-systems moment, the kind of thing we saw with the Civil Service Commission.

All hands on deck is also how we reversed the capture of the FDA by Big Pharma in the 1950s, when drugs were getting approved by default. There was great harm in these drug cocktails, and it all blew up with the discovery of the grotesque effects of Thalidomide on babies.

In 1962, the great Estes Kefauver seized the moment and got his landmark amendments passed. He flipped the bit, so drugs had to be proved safe instead of proved unsafe. But there was an installed base problem. There were over 4,000 drugs already on the market.

The FDA commissioner borrowed 10 young doctors from the Surgeon General, he got the National Academies to provide a home, and he drafted 180 of the best doctors and scientists in the country, and they reviewed every one of those drugs.

Three years later, when the Great Drug Review was done, seven percent of the pharmacopeia was pulled, and a full 50 percent of the drugs were relabeled with vastly reduced claims and many more warnings.

Stemming today’s IT torrent needs the same approach, a Computer Commission with the kind of authority the Civil Service Commission had to conduct agency-by-agency reviews and help us reboot .gov, flipping the bit from a reliance on over-designed custom systems to one based on open-source building blocks, judicious use of commercial off-the-shelf-components, and much tighter control of the beltway bandits.

The President should call in the federal tech staff and tell them what Lyndon Johnson told the FDA regulators when he got in their face and said “let the venal and the self-seeking and the tawdry and the tainted fear to enter your building.”

Redoing our infrastructure could change the economy. Doing it consistent with global environmental issues – a real challenge.

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