Critical Read

Book Excerpt: The Politics of Abundance

Cover of Politics of Abundance

In “The Politics of Abundance: How Technology Can Fix the Budget, Revive the American Dream and Establish Obama’s Legacy,” former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt and National Broadband Plan Director Blair Levin argue that an essential ingredient for improving the debt-to-GDP ratio, which is at the heart of the “fiscal cliff” debate, is economic growth, and technology can provide the necessary catalyst.

Although they make a number of recommendations, one of the broad themes is that the federal government should move rapidly to transition all government and public services, such as education and health care, to the digital, broadband platform. This excerpt details steps to accelerate a government digital transition and improve broadband capability for communities throughout the United States.

Make government a digital service provider for everyone

The most recently created federal agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was designed with up-to-date digital systems. The bureau resolves over 60 percent of the complaints it receives with minimal intervention of government employees, and does [it] faster, better and cheaper than paper-bound agencies hampered by legacy systems. Learning from this experience and the experience of private enterprises that have improved performance through digital technology, the government should digitize the knowledge platform [of] all its agencies and departments. Not only will government-as-a-service be better, it will be cheaper. A high-tech CEO council identified about $1 trillion in savings achievable by 2020 through better use of technology.

To obtain these savings, Congress should create a data management authority that resembles the military base closing commission. Congress should agree that the authority’s recommendations will have the force of law unless Congress passes, and President Obama signs, a law reversing them. Run by executives who have led such transformations in the private sector, the authority should make recommendations every six months, for a decade.

The commission should be able to reinvest at least some of the money it saves to expedite its transformation of government. It also should allocate some of the savings to training government employees who will provide the new services, as well as a program focused on training new computer engineers. Some savings also should be dedicated to creating digital literacy programs so that users of government services can learn how to access those services. In addition, as the government moves from analog to digital, it has to assure that all have access to the new platform. The framework for the legislation, therefore, should dedicate some part of the savings to bringing all Americans online.

The administration should also campaign against paper. Paper records are the enemy of improving performance. Paper leads to huge costs in translating to digital forms, mistakes in translating, difficulties in analyzing and delays in responding to the data. This is why the Recovery Act wisely directed the federal government to invest almost $20 billion to encourage health care providers to move to electronic health records. The same logic should be applied to all government activity.

Everyone hates filling out forms. Technology can liberate people from the tyranny of forms. With a single click, Americans can provide the information government needs while retaining security and privacy. Government agencies can securely share information without requiring duplicate forms from their users. Data exchange platforms now allow people and businesses to store information securely. Using these, a person or a business could give a government agency access to its data. When the government needs it, the business would permit the government to retrieve the data. The person or business could revoke access to their data at any time. This kind of technology also gives government and other institutions greater flexibility to integrate and edit existing forms and to fulfill new requirements for data.

To provide better public services, the administration should create, a personalized government service that enables data to flow easily from government servers into innovative applications. An individual with a problem should be able to state the nature of the problem once and, through a search algorithm, find the skills within the government to address the problem. Where possible, Americans should be able to interact with their government 24/7 and from their location of choice.

Accelerate bandwidth growth

Network bandwidth and network-delivered services are complementary products — neither has much value without the other, and which must come first is an unsolvable chicken-and-egg problem. Government always does well, however, to take at least three steps. First, it should encourage competition in network markets so that individual firms can seek advantage by being early to deploy new bandwidth. Second, it should create and deliver government services on the knowledge platform so as to create the assurance of volume that encourages investors to upgrade network bandwidth. Third, it should facilitate aggregate buying of bandwidth.

The federal government should offer to buy access to next-generation network services for federal buildings in any community that is seeking an upgrade to world-class connectivity. In an open procurement process, the federal government could invite all public institutions to join in a buying cooperative for next-generation network access. This would be analogous to the sensible “dig once” policy that requires a coordinated construction effort to accelerate broadband deployment on federal lands, which the president adopted by executive order. The principle should be “buy once and buy together” for schools, libraries, hospitals and governments at all levels.

Federal agencies also should make higher connectivity a criterion in evaluating communities’ applications for certain scientific grants, for e-rate funding or for economic development grants. (World-class networks in any event would improve the effectiveness of each grant.) As soon as a critical mass of communities has obtained an upgrade, other communities will have a greater motivation to do so.

To lower the cost of providing bandwidth, the administration should sell more of a critical asset that it owns — the spectrum, or the right to use the airwaves for mobile communication. Not only would moving more spectrum from government use to private use produce revenue, but it would also lower costs for private providers.

The federal government should address the spectrum it uses the same way it handles another key asset: real estate. Instead of each agency handling its own real estate, the General Services Administration controls the overall portfolio. Similarly, the federal government should put all government-used spectrum under the control of a single administrator.

That agency, particularly if it is part of the Office of Management and Budget, will ensure that the spectrum is used efficiently and would be able to balance the need of government agencies for spectrum with the possibility of raising revenue by leasing spectrum to private parties. The goal is to keep bandwidth provision on a Moore’s Law curve of declining cost, thereby assuring that consumers will be getting the knowledge platform’s services faster, better and cheaper.

About the Authors

Reed Hundt is CEO of the Coalition for Green Capital and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Blair Levin is a fellow at the Aspen Institute and executive director of Gig.U, a coalition of research university communities working to accelerate the deployment of next-generation networks in the United States. He is a former chief of staff at the Federal Communications Commssion.


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