Tech leader Tim O’Reilly says this key IT ingredient will make or break social policies in 2021

Published On: May 7, 2021

O’Reilly said if the Biden Administration and local progressive policymakers fail to apply this one IT industry principle, it could mean the end for some social equity initiatives.

It’s not good enough to just have good ideas—execution matters.

That was the tenet shared by Tim O’Reilly, the tech thought leader and founder of O’Reilly Media, as he spoke to an audience of technologists and government innovators on April 29. O’Reilly took part in a Q&A-styled discussion hosted by the civic tech group Code for America, where he serves as a board member. His focus targeted social equity reform.

O’Reilly said that when it comes to social policies and programs, the litmus test for effective government is the capacity for implementation. Even in our skeptical and partisan world, O’Reilly said efficient implementation has an uncanny and indisputable power to build faith in new ideas and change beliefs.

“I will say that change happens when people believe that things can be different. And changing the way people feel and think and believe about an issue is, in fact, almost the fundamental human act,” O’Reilly said.

In tech, excellence in implementation is an ideology that has enabled the industry to take once obscure products and business models and transform them into billion-dollar companies. The tech industry’s flourish of public support, O’Reilly said, is fueled by its ability to prove its ideas via intuitive design, accessibility, quick response, and the quality and consistent user experiences we now expect.

For social equity, he called on all levels of government to adopt delivery-driven policy-making, a Code for America term for creating policies and programs that are engineered for citizen-consumers. Simply put, this means governments map out the logistical “how” of service delivery before jumping to create new programs, policies, or regulations. Data and testing are critical elements in this framework.

When asked what this means for the Biden Administration, especially after its first 100 days, O’Reilly was straightforward. Finding ideas for social good won’t be the problem, he said; the president’s biggest challenge will be taking the forward-thinking concepts and embodying them within tangible, hand-to-mouth programs.

“The thing that’s so important about this moment is we now have this meeting of policy ideas that are progressive, but the real worry is that if they’re not implemented well, everybody will say, ‘oh, that didn’t work,'” O’Reilly said.

President Biden’s current list of high priorities includes a $2.3 trillion infrastructure jobs plan, funding dedicated to improvements like rebuilding roads, maintaining bridges, and increasing broadband. He has a $1.8 trillion family plan, a bill that would expand preschool and college opportunities, provide family and medical leave, and distribute childcare subsidies.

These two bills accompany initiatives in climate change, immigration, bankruptcy reform, racial equity, and housing.

O’Reilly said delivery is an equally crucial determinant for success at the state, county, and city levels, adding the work demands an interplay of insightful policy and artful technology applications. He advised governments to support IT departments as a safeguard for managing services and making informed decisions. O’Reilly also discouraged the idea that governments only need to be brokers of digital services supplied by the private sector.

“I would say the first thing that we really need to get across is that technological capability should not be outsourced,” O’Reilly said. “We’ve been in the grip of a theory of government that says, ‘this tech stuff is just something you should buy from the outside,’—and while I think it’s really true that the government shouldn’t necessarily be building up this huge capacity and competing with the private sector—government should have the capability to understand and engage.”

The Obama Administration’s first attempts to roll out the Affordable Care Act via Healthcare.gov, the nation’s healthcare insurance exchange, exemplifies the concept. The controversial insurance exchange failed in its initial attempts due to a lack of digital expertise in the federal government. Its eventual launch and successful deployment came only after the White House brought in Silicon Valley talent and institutionalized modern IT management through in-house digital services groups like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service.

“Now at the federal level you have the U.S. Digital Service, you have 18F, you have the Defense Digital Service, where these groups are bringing the capability to come in, meet with a project manager, and say this contract just doesn’t make sense, but here’s how we can go about solving this problem.”

O’Reilly spotlighted the groups as examples local government can emulate. Cities and counties might not have the budget to replicate the groups, but O’Reilly said local jurisdictions could empower their IT staff or IT departments with added authority, resources, and internal support from leadership. Ultimately, he said that this backing translates into a better, data-driven government that produces results.

“We have all these arguments in our country that a [government] program should be this way or that way, and we haven’t interrogated enough if we did what we intended to do,” O’Reilly said.

Code for America, which has assisted dozens of cities and local agencies with digital transformation projects since 2009, will hold its annual summit from June 12-13. Check back here for news coverage of its summit focused on digital solutions for social equity.

About the Author: Jason Shueh

Jason Shueh is a journalist and content strategist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work focuses on the tech sector, digital innovation, smart city growth, and entrepreneurship. He can be reached at jason at govreport.org.