Former Official Urges US Digital Service as part of Puerto Rico Fiscal Board
Rev: Giancarlo Gonzalez
Giancarlo González, former chief information officer for the Puerto Rico government, kicked off a petition urging the U.S. federal government to incorporate the United States Digital Service—a consultancy at the White House that provides services to federal agencies on information technology—to become a key component of the fiscal control board, slated to take over the commonwealth’s fiscal matters if and when Congress passes legislation on the matter.
Specifically, González is banking on a clause in House Resolution 5278 that would allow the detailing of federal employees in the implementation of the fiscal control board and any other actions to restructure government operations on the island.
“Puerto Rico is facing serious financial and political challenges, and with the possibility of a federal fiscal-control board looming on the island, there is no bigger inflection point to take advantage of building new digital institutions that will genuinely allow the effective redesign of government operations,” reads the petition posted on the White House’s “We the People” website.
“Considering the board’s composition, members, expertise and cultural sensitivity to Puerto Rico’s social and economic hardships could mean the difference between disorder and quiet recognition that the inevitable changes may be seen as opportunity,” the petition continues. “This is our chance to work together to build an awesome future for Puerto Rico, and set a real example of disruptive—yet very necessary—technological collaboration.”
Speaking to Caribbean Business, González explained his rationale behind the petition, which has already garnered signees such as independent gubernatorial candidate Manuel Cidre. “We desperately need to implement best practices across the government to generate savings, and until now, there has been little movement to do so,” he said. “At this juncture, the fiscal board represents the best opportunity yet to carry out those changes once and for all.”
One of the main points of concern for González involves the government’s tendency to hand out big, unwieldy contracts to tech firms for government services that do not adjust well to changes in public policy. An example of this took place when the local Treasury Department gave Fast Enterprises a large contract to overhaul the agency’s tax collecting process, specifically through a platform called GenTax.
“This was when plans were underway to replace the sales & use tax with a value-added tax system and include a business-to-business tax as well,” González explained. “However, the House of Representatives later defeated the measure, which changed the rules of the contract practically overnight, which further increases costs. There are other contracting models that are much more agile and lend themselves to the way government works.”
González also criticized the lack of motivation from several players in the Puerto Rico tech sector to implement true innovation in the realm of government tech, which by some estimates represents a $100 billion market. In particular, the former government CIO took the Puerto Rico IT Cluster, an information-technology industry group, to task for its apparent failure to promote innovation and best practices as espoused by the U.S. Digital Service.
For example, González highlighted the lack of local firms capable of exporting their services through software-as-a-service models. “There are many firms in the U.S. that offer their services to the government, but because of their business model, any city can hire them. Here in Puerto Rico, we haven’t developed those kinds of solutions, for the most part.”
During his tenure as government CIO, González masterminded a series of conferences and hackathons to engage with the tech community, one being the Puerto Rico Tech Summit, which is held annually to foster the sector and local government involvement in tech.
Lastly, González stressed the need to insert “techies,” or people who are highly knowledgeable about technology, into any future attempts to improve the government’s efficiency and cut back on costs. “It starts with recruiting the right talent. There’s a reason why the US Digital Service is bringing in the best ‘tech talent’ Silicon Valley has to offer. We have that talent in Puerto Rico, where to former CIO employees now work with the US Digital Service – but these individuals were not empowered to execute real change in development and delivery of services.”
“Empowering the right people significantly reduces expenditures, like what happened with the launch of Healthcare.gov, which cost $200 million less than what previously estimated thanks to the US Digital team,” González added. “It is solutions like these that require the involvement of tech-savvy people.”