Testimony presented before the Fiscal Oversight Board

I’d like to thank the Chairman and all members of the Board for holding this hearing to “Review how we can best use technology to redesign and rebuild a better Puerto Rico”.

I’d like to open up with the following quote from Tom Steinberg of mySociety, a British based NGO:

What do we mean by “digital”?

Let me provide some examples to put into context:

  • In transportation, you can hit a button and expect an Uber to arrive.  Enabled by open data access in cities all over the world, Google Maps can tell me it’s a 28-minute walk-subway-walk to my destination and I instantly know the arrival of the next train.  In PR you don’t know when the bus will arrive.
  • When you log in to use any digital service (email, twitter, facebook, dropbox) they all recognize if you login in from an unusual location, and you get a two-way authentication to confirm the account is safe.
  • Five states will be rolling out digital license pilot projects in 2018 – in PR people can’t even log in to the David Plus system.

In Puerto Rico, there is an ‘alternate reality’ when interacting with Government services.  These are just a few of the ‘digital experiences’ our fellow Puerto Ricans go through:

  • The power authority tweets an excel spreadsheet with images of the areas they are working on today.  You do not know routes of where they will be going next and you can’t provide ‘crowdsourced updates’ on specific pockets of outages.

  • The municipality of San Juan takes a picture of an excel print out showing the number of tons of debris they have removed and tweets it to the public.  Why don’t we have a geo-location map of the areas served and where they go next, such as how the City of San Diego reports city street repairs?

  • Figures indicate that around 40% of addresses receive mail, meaning 60% of addresses are not well documented.  Puerto Rico needs to adopt modern addressing standards. Not using modern addressing standards impacts public safety — including emergency response to 911 calls, and the accuracy and speed of FEMA damage assessments. — HUD official
  • If you go to PR.gov, there are two different “user registrations” on the homepage for different sets of services which either don’t work properly or don’t provide any meaningful benefit.

Facebook would bankrupt in a single day with any such abysmal configuration faux pas.  To what digital standards will we hold our Government in this rebuilding process?

Today I am here to present a ‘digital way forward’ for the Fiscal Control and Oversight Board (FCOB) to support a reconstruction that will guarantee lower operational and administrative costs,  better management of government funding, deliver much-improved government services and provide a foundation for economic development opportunities while saving tens of millions of dollars in the process.

There are four fundamental elements I recommend focusing on:

  • Establish a proper data & digital governance structure

  • Support procurement reform that allows for agile contracting

  • Enable a “Government as a Platform” approach for building new services

  • Promote a “GovTech” market strategy for digital infrastructure projects

Let’s talk about each of these.

A Data & Digital Governance Structure

Puerto Rico’s long-term success requires that the FCOB and the government work together, and the current historical juncture represents the best opportunity to do so. The government of Puerto Rico needs to recruit and empower top-level digital talent to lead the government-wide coordination of IT investments and implementations that prioritize user-centered design and maximize efficiency and transparency.

The local government has been working on an initiative called the Puerto Rico Innovation & Technology Service (PRITS), but PRITS needs legal standing at the local level to be effective in achieving long-term transformation.  The past two governors intended to create such structure by law and failed, and we continue to drag our feet in empowering a ‘digital first’ approach.

PROMESA provides one of the necessary tools to assist in supporting PRITS in a cost-effective manner. The FCOB may request to detail Federal employees from the US Digital Service currently willing to serve in Puerto Rico and assign them to this important initiative.  These resources will have the knowledge and experience to support a wide range of projects and can help us find creative ways to do things radically different and at much lower costs.

Action Item:
Creating a Data & Digital Governance Taskforce composed of the most knowledgeable group of techies who are subject matter experts (SMEs) within local and federal government structures would serve to assist in addressing issues such as the financial data challenges the FCOB currently faces. This team would greatly assist in crucial tasks such as:

  • Developing a government-wide Financial Reporting Center of Excellence (FRCoE) that can properly support the initial definition, support, implementation, and future development of the government’s accounting and finance systems.
  • Implementing open data principles so that developers and third parties can create applications and other means of exposing financial data to stakeholders, including the ability to publish checkbook-level transactions for every agency.

Procurement Reform that enables Agile Contracting

The FCOB recently implemented a contract revision process focused primarily on contracts upwards of $10 million.  With regards to technology, this process will have little to no positive impact.  There should be a separate revision process for all technology contracts along with performance reviews based on best practices to ensure delivery of working products with regular, continuous delivery throughout contract execution. This should also include a ‘digital’ review of legislative bills, which 99% of the time is erroneous or inadequate from a technological and digital standpoint.

Previous administrations in Puerto Rico have established a bureaucratic contract review process with deficient results.  It creates a brutal bottleneck in the evaluation process that may result in expiration of contract renewals, leaving specific agencies without any critical technology services or vendor support.  It also doesn’t solve the central issue of ensuring the ‘right’ vendor is selected. Current contract reviews are simply going over a “politicking contract” awarded to the wrong provider in the first place.  A more open and well-designed procurement process is the surest way to attract the best talent and ensure a working product for citizens at a better price for the services provided by the vendor.

Another issue is the talent behind the contract review process.  You need people with a wide range of skills to review a wide range of technologies, from telecommunications to licensing to application development, these all require different people to review accordingly, ask the right questions and challenge assumptions.  Handing out a digital web contract to an ad agency so that they update broken links is not an advancement in our digital infrastructure.

The US Digital Service developed an agile procurement process that allows our government to catch up to the private sector by focusing on outcomes.  In 2013, only 55 Federal Government Software Contract Solicitations included the word “agile”, in 2017 that number jumped to 296.   The FCOB may request to detail Federal employees from the “Procuremenati” section of the USDS to assist in establishing better procurement guidelines.

Government as a Platform Approach for building services

We need to review how digital services will be rebuilt.  Simply putting a digital front end on a broken bureaucratic system often only makes the problem worse, because the digital system replicates existing processes without rethinking them from the ground up.  Before we can build apps that really transform the citizen experience with regards to the government, especially the neediest, we have to improve the underlying operations of government services.

We should hold our government accountable to provide ‘platform services’ that the private sector can leverage to deliver even better services.  Think of when the US Government opened up the GPS platform – it opened the door for a 10 billion dollar GPS navigation industry.  It went beyond that enabling services like Uber, which would be not possible without the GPS platform.

Providing “platform services” means strategically identifying what building blocks are essential for government or public-private-partners to provide and then allow for open marketplace participants to deliver services feeding off those “platforms”.   For example, there are over 1M geo-located address points from a PRASA project but the data is not open for use as a “platform” to enable other services.  FEMA has 100,000 + solicitations on hold due to address data issues.

Platforms will enable entrepreneurs and innovators to deliver new services and applications that were previously unimaginable.  I recommend starting with adopting a Single-Sign-On Identity Management Platform that would allow millions in savings, protection against identity theft and for exponential development of new services on top of that at much lower costs.

GovTech Market Strategy

This last point is enabled and supported by the previous three.

The GovTech market is an industry of industries, ranging from administration & finance to health & human services, transportation, education and public safety, to name a few. The estimated IT spend for 2017 at state and local government levels will be $99.8 billion, according to a recent “State of Govtech” report. Roughly 10,000 IT vendors engaged in the GovTech business will service over 30,000 IT-related opportunities.

There is a big economic development opportunity by facilitating digital infrastructure projects through an iterative proposal model instead of the current process which is cumbersome from a digital standpoint and is not citizen-centric.

Enabling this market requires we identify local suppliers of GovTech solutions that have already been adopted and implemented by Puerto Rico state agencies and municipalities and who have the potential of selling their solutions to state and local governments in the United States.  Then establish and execute a sales and marketing plan in collaboration with relevant agencies in the Puerto Rico Department of Economic Development.

Closing Thoughts

The UK saved 4 Billion pounds over five years transforming how they develop and deliver digital services.  The most recent UN Survey positions the UK as the #1 country in e-government, significantly improving people’s lives while also enabling new business and economic activity.

If there’s one takeaway from my testimony is that we must be bold and decisive in ensuring we rebuild a government capacity to respond to people’s needs while saving tens of millions of dollars in the process.

The FCOB should lay the foundation for structural government reform so the government will operate in the 21stcentury with a digital-first mindset.  This will provide an opportunity for the technological advances to improve the conditions of the people in Puerto Rico.