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Remarks by GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan to Grace Hopper Celebration

Thanks for the chance to talk with you today. I’m sorry we can’t be together in person and I certainly hope I can join you in real life next year.

I’m Robin Carnahan, the Administrator of the U.S General Services Administration or GSA. It’s not an agency that many people have heard of, but we are the largest landlord and tenant in the country, GSA manages the largest civilian vehicle fleet in the world, and we maintain one of the country’s largest public art collections. And every year, we help government agencies buy over $76 billion in goods and services each. Our technology teams help buy, build, and support technology products and services that are used by hundreds of millions to access healthcare, file taxes, and even buy surplus government property like lighthouses and firetrucks.

My fellow Missourian, President Harry Truman established the GSA in 1949 to do two things: streamline government operations and save money.

That no nonsense vision: to make government work better for the people it serves and save money doing it, is our same defining purpose today. Only today, technology is a big part of everything we do.

During my career I've worked in government and the private sector. I’ve served in both federal and state government and worked internationally in more than 20 countries.

So I’ve witnessed firsthand the scale and the enormous impact an effective government can have in improving people’s lives; and I’ve seen the devastating human impact when it doesn't.

And given all that is happening in the world today, and that we’ve been living through during the past 18 months, I know a lot of people are asking:

  • Can government still work?
  • Who does government work for?
  • And who’s job is it to make our government work?

These are all important questions. Because how we answer them will determine whether this great American experiment in self government can actually deliver on it’s promise.

This is one of the great challenges and opportunities of our time.

The threats are real and getting it right takes a lot of work--but ensuring our democracy delivers is important work and worthy of our lives.

______________

It probably won’t come as a surprise to this audience, but increasingly, the difference between a government that works well for people and one that doesn’t, as we’ve seen in the past 18 months, is about more than getting the policy right…it comes down to delivering.

And in my experience, there are three things that make or break delivery…first, the TECHNOLOGY government uses to deliver services, but even more importantly, the PEOPLE and VALUES involved in designing and deploying that technology.

If you think about it, these days nearly every interaction a person has with their government involves technology.

  • The veteran who served two tours and needs to enroll in healthcare...
  • The college student looking for more information about student loans...
  • The small businesswoman working to fully realize the American dream...
  • Hundreds of millions of Americans trying to access testing and vaccines during the pandemic.

I could go on and on with examples.

But understand this, the magnitude and scale of issues... issues that really matter for people...are the work of government, and affect people’s lives in a way unmatched anywhere in the private sector. So we need people just like you who know how to use technology to deliver, sitting in the room...sitting at those tables when policy is being made. In fact, it has never been more important.

As I look across government, it doesn’t take long to see some pretty clear patterns and areas where smarter use of tech can make a really big difference for our families and communities. Because the normal interaction between a person and government involves some pretty basic and predictable workflows.

The first step involves verifying a person’s identity and whether they’re qualified for a particular program. In the analog world that’s usually done by physically showing up and producing a government issued photo ID and stack of documents proving where you live or your income, or number of people in your family.

Up until recently, almost all of those interactions happened face to face or by mail with lots of physical documents being shared and copied and filed away.

Going forward, digitizing that manual process needs to be done in a way that is user friendly and secure. Online banking and other businesses use these sorts of tools for years, so we know it’s possible and it’s time we do the same in government.

Next step is communication. That’s typically notices-- generally by mail. Which can be slow, costly, and ineffective especially for folks who move or don’t have a stable address.

So, digitizing the process for communicating is also critical -- but we have to do it in a way that serves everyone by remembering that even as we move toward a more digital government, that we preserve access to other options for those without ability or access to the internet.

The same goes for the payment process, and the tracking, auditing, reporting needed to manage any program.

Technically, these are all completely solvable problems. But integrating modern solutions into existing legacy systems takes time and tenacity. And while these challenges are technical, they’re also cultural which means when make a change, that impact can be transformative.

I want to give you a few examples of the amazing work being done by women on our tech team at GSA that are making a positive impact for millions of Americans.

Let’s start with Tiffany Andrews, a technical product manager, she worked at Code for America building products in the criminal justice space. She was also Chief of Staff for a council member in the City of Long Beach, California. She started her federal career at 18F, a digital consultancy that is part of GSA.

Tiffany now works on Login.gov, which is a single sign-on for government websites that allows people to securely access public services across agencies with the same username and password. Today, it’s used by over 31 million people.

Since, as I mentioned earlier, the first step in any government interaction is confirming your identity, Tiffany’s work is especially important. She and her team know that we must get this right, otherwise even the best-intentioned policies in the world won’t benefit the people they’re intended to serve.

As a product manager, Tiffany is able to use data analytics to drive out bias, protect privacy, improve security and continuously improve login.gov so it can better serve everyone.

Accessible, inclusive government is also at the heart of Maria Patterson’s work at the Department of Labor.

Maria is an astronomer and data scientist who is one of 58 Presidential Innovation Fellows. This fellowship embeds some of the nation's top engineers, designers, and strategists inside government agencies as yearlong entrepreneurs-in-residence. Prior to her fellowship, Maria worked in venture capital and startups.

Now Maria is at the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, she helps ensure that any artificial intelligence used in HR departments across the country don’t discriminate against people with disabilities.

I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of AI that was biased against women and people of color in the hiring process. Well, Maria is working to make sure that doesn’t happen to anyone -- women, people of color, people with disabilities, or anyone else.

Then there’s Lindsay Young, an engineer who used to teach Python at Johns’ Hopkins University, she’s now acting director for cloud.gov, which provides secure cloud services to 30 agencies. Before leading the cloud.gov team Lindsay’s team built a new, user-friendly website for the Federal Election Commission that provides better public transparency about where political contributions come from and where that money is being spent. It was the agency’s first use of APIs, and besides providing better transparency also saves taxpayers $1.2 million a year in infrastructure costs.

Lindsay has since repeated this success with other agencies. Her team used cloud.gov to support a new website where people can report civil rights violations to the Department of Justice and a new more accessible website for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I’ve got one last person to tell you about, Leilani Martínez, she used to work at the World Bank but now manages the digital content and outreach strategy for USA dot Gov--the digital front door for the federal government. Every year over 100 million people visit USA.gov and USA.gov en Español for information on benefits, taxes, where they can get a vaccine, how to apply for a student loan and so much more.

These are just four people.. Impacting millions of lives… But there’s more to be done, that’s why we need more folks like you working alongside them.

It’s a chance to work on issues that you care about whether it’s the climate crisis, access to healthcare and education, combating cybersecurity threats or working for social and economic justice.

All over the country, these issues and more are being worked on at every level of government. At hundreds of federal agencies, in all 50 states, 3400 counties and 19,000 cities.

I’m grateful that so many smart technologists--early, mid and late career--are stepping up and putting their talents to use for the public good.

They’ve chosen to work on things that really make a positive impact in the lives of millions of families and their communities.

I hope that you’ll consider doing the same and decide to spend some time in public service.

Our country needs your talent and energy at this historic moment to help reimagine the way government and democracy can deliver for the American people.

There are one-year fellowships like Maria’s and 4- and 8- year term appointments like Tiffany’s that offer a tour of duty in government. Or you can follow Lindsay and Leilani’s path and opt for a career as a government technologist.

There are many different pathways to serve:

  • We have the opportunities here at GSA but there are many others throughout the government.
  • There’s U.S. Digital Service, which hires technologists for tours of duty into government to work alongside to support career civil servants.
  • There’s the Defense Digital Service, where you can work on technology to strengthen national defense, and care for service members and their families.
  • Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency are looking for people to join their teams and protect the Nation’s infrastructure from cyber threats.

I know my friend and former CTO of the United States, Megan Smith has been a regular at Grace Hopper over the years, and she’s mentioned getting feedback at past conferences, that there weren’t enough opportunities in government for people starting out in their careers.

That’s a problem that we want and desperately need to solve. Because, today, only 3% of the federal technology workforce is under the age of 30. So making it easier to recruit and hire early career tech professionals is a high priority.

That’s why I’m very excited to announce the launch of the U.S. Digital Corps, a new program for those of you who may be still in school or finishing out a tech training program. The U.S. Digital Corps is a two-year government fellowship program for early-career technologists.

Applications are opening soon. So please consider stopping by our virtual booth here at Grace Hopper or learn more at digitalcorps.gsa.gov.

No matter what path you choose: Your country needs you more than ever before. The problems we face today are big, they didn’t materialize overnight and it’s going to take your creativity, your fresh set of eyes, and your technical skills to reimagine the future and then build the solutions that the American people deserve.

For anyone who’s interested in learning more, we’ve created an easy onramp for you to get started. Take a look at this website to sign up to learn more.

And just to be clear: we need people with a broad range of technology skills, from the engineers, to content designers, to people in the decision room, making sure public policy will be effective and accessible for the people they’re intended to benefit.

Making government and yes, democracy work requires having the right people at the table. Policy is better when the people impacted are part of the drafting process. Services are better where people who use them are part of the design process. Government works better when everyone is involved.

Right now, less than a quarter of the technologists in federal government are women, even fewer are women of color. That’s just not good enough. We want to do better.

(Pause)

I’d like to end by answering the questions I started with.

  • Yes, government can still work.
  • Yes, it’s in our power to create a government that works for everyone.
  • And, yes, it’s everyone’s job to make that happen.

I hope you're ready to join us.

Thank you.

Last Reviewed: 2021-10-20