O’Reilly: Government needs to close the feedback loop

Like federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra, O’Reilly is a believer in the concept of “government as a platform,” which involves making federal data publicly accessible, allowing developers to find innovative and practical uses for it.

“What we’re really trying to get at is how data as a platform can enable new kinds of behavior and applications. Lot of people look at Vivek and, they think it’s just about transparency and accountability,” he said. “But it’s also about the possibility of creating feedback loops. Figuring out what’s working and what’s not so we can change what is not working. We’re looking at areas such as welfare and education.”

O’Reilly acknowledged the bureaucracy might be resistant to exposing its shortcomings, which is why transparency plays such a critical role in reforming how the government works.

“This whole idea of visibility by the public creates a pretty powerful lever,” he said. “In the new transparency era, you are able to make change you would otherwise have difficulty making. It’s no longer possible for somebody just to bury the problem. It’s the reason why things like WikiLeaks are important.”

O’Reilly also praised Kundra for his ideas and objectives but said execution issues outside of his control have hampered his effectiveness.

“I think it’s really hard for example to get some of the agencies to cooperate and produce really useful data. I think he’s totally on the right track,” O’Reilly said. He also suggested Kundra’s critics show more patience, arguing the “open-data movement” has only been serious for the past 20 months.

“We would like to see more, but am I skeptical about the long-term direction? Not at all,” he said.

Two factors that are traditionally cited as barriers to the government’s use of technology is the shortage of technical personnel and the difficulty of navigating the federal procurement process. O’Reilly suggested the latter concern is more pressing than the former.

“I think it’s less a matter of expertise than the fact the government doesn’t control its own resources. The contracting process is really badly broken,” O’Reilly said. “You can’t do rapid, iterative development very easily in the current [request for proposal], prime contractor etc. environment. We have to get change there.

On the topic of recruiting the best IT minds to the government, he was more optimistic.

“There is a possibility of fresh talent coming to work for the government. Millennials are the most public-spirited generation since the 1960s. There is an opportunity to harness that generation and make government service cool again.”

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