Former Puerto Rico CIO welcomes congressional action in tackling debt crisis

This article was written by Dennis Costa for Caribbean Business print edition and adapted for this blog.

U.S. Congressional Legislation Opens Door to Tech-Based Governance in Puerto Rico

Former Commonwealth CIO: “U.S. Actions on Puerto Rico Fiscal Crisis Should Bring Local Government Operations into 21st Century”

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In an attempt to solve Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis and help the commonwealth avoid future bond defaults, the U.S. Congress has carried out steps that have proven controversial.

Among the most maligned moves was a bill—filed by U.S. Senate chairs Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Chuck Grassley (R-Idaho) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in mid-December—that would impose a chief financial officer with a say in Puerto Rico’s annual budget, among other measures designed to increase transparency in the commonwealth’s disclosure of financial information.

The S.2381 bill, also called the Puerto Rico Assistance Act, brought echoes of the financial control board that Congress imposed on the District of Columbia in the mid-1990s, and drew criticism from the Alejandro García Padilla administration, with some officials saying the bill would take the island’s relationship with the U.S. “back to the 19th century.”

Yet according to a former top official in the García Padilla administration, several clauses in the controversial bill—which has been placed on hold after the end of the last congressional session—open the door for a much-needed overhaul in the way the local government operates, especially from a technological standpoint.

Giancarlo González began working as the commonwealth’s Chief Information Officer in 2013. During his two and a half years at the helm of the CIO Office, González pushed several initiatives geared at improving access to government digital services and open data, chief among them evangelizing on use of the US Digital Services Playbook, deploying modern digital services, launching the Data.PR.gov website and holding an annual Tech Summit that brought some of the tech industry’s biggest names to the island.

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Events took a turn last June when, after being awarded Government Agency of the Year by the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce, Gov. García Padilla signed an executive order that dismantled the CIO Office and fused it with the Economic Development & Commerce Department. Days later, González resigned from his position and returned to the private sector.

Positive aspects of S.2381

Now, in the first interview he has given to a media outlet since his resignation, González gave his views on several elements in S.2381 that are expected to survive in future congressional measures and could benefit the island in ways that may silence some of the bill’s harshest critics.

González highlighted various clauses in the bill, particularly Title 6, dubbed “Technical Assistance,” which details the ways in which the U.S. Treasury secretary should provide technical assistance to U.S. territories. “One clause says ‘ensuring that the agencies in the territory use financial systems that are compatible with the systems of other agencies… to provide for consistent, timely financial reporting,’” González quoted.  “If we want to ensure that, it has a lot to do with implementing the right technology and governance structure.”

Another clause in the bill states that the U.S. Treasury secretary has to create and maintain a public website with searchable capabilities for the purposes of posting financial information, while yet another clause gives agency heads leeway in hiring expert personnel, detailing federal employees to the Fiscal Control Authority in Puerto Rico. “It means that the chief of any federal agency can send people to a [commonwealth] agency in Puerto Rico to work on specific projects, and that is great,” the former CIO said.

To give an idea of how such an implementation may come about on the island, González pointed to similar moves that the Obama administration has carried out, particularly through a program called “Presidential Innovation Fellows” that began in 2012.

“The program recruited the best engineers and programmers in the nation to work a year in programs assigned from the White House, such as, for example, the HealthCare.gov website,” González explained. However, the October 2013 launch of the website was plagued with technological problems and federal officials had to look for a new strategy.

18F to the rescue

Enter the General Services Administration (GSA), which provides office space and maintenance to other federal agencies. Given the GSA’s horizontally based, wide-ranging service structure, officials decided to establish a technological team within the GSA dubbed 18F (in reference to its office location in Washington, D.C., on the corner of 18th and F Streets.)

“They hired from the top talent pool of Silicon Valley engineers,” González noted. “If the Health Department has trouble with a project, for example, they send 18F to analyze the problem and solve it. We are talking about doers who are sent in for a specific purpose: improve efficiency and delivery of government digital services and operations based on user needs.”

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White House officials then realized they needed a public policy framework to determine where to send 18F and which projects they should work on. This prompted the formation of the U.S. Digital Service, which in turn helped insert dedicated tech-savvy personnel inside every major federal agency. “You need those resources inside each agency, and immersed in its particular culture,” González said. “Air cover is also an important point. One needs the freedom to implement the necessary solutions without a lobbyist complaining to higher-ups on the phone.”

When asked about the optimal tech-based structure inside any agency, González explained, “three official positions are needed: a chief technology officer, chief innovation officer and chief data officer. Under that, there should be digital team with developers, database specialists, graphic artists, designers and project managers.”

The former Puerto Rico CIO revealed that his team was actively engaged with the US Digital Service, and already one former colleague in the CIO Office is actively working in Washington with the USDS.

“If the federal government is setting up this kind of structure in every federal agency to ensure transformation, what makes you think they won’t want to do the same in Puerto Rico?” González said. “That’s why I believe that even if this particular bill doesn’t pass, the clauses related to technology will live on in future measures, and I sincerely believe these are tools that can solve many of the problems in Puerto Rico, it’s just a matter of bringing in the right people, with the right skills and getting bureaucrats out of their way.”

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