The Government Wants to Bolster Its Tech—Starting With Workers

Although it is one of the less-known parts of the US government, the General Services Administration has a surprising reach. It has more than 370,000,000 square feet of offices, other facilities and vehicles for federal agencies. Robin Carnahan, President Biden's choice to lead the agency is particularly concerned about its government tech support.
Robin Carnahan Photograph: General Services Administration

Carnahan was confirmed by the Senate in June. She previously worked at 18F. This tech group was set up by the Obama administration within GSA to modernize government technology. She spoke with Tom Simonite recently about plans to improve online access to government services, and to attract more tech talent. Below is an edited transcript.

During the pandemic, many people relied more on the internet. Is it clearer that digital government must improve?

Because everyone saw it clearly, it has. The multitrillion-dollar CARES Act, which funded unemployment benefits, was quickly passed by Congress. Governors were required to explain why they couldn't be obtained. Technology was the problem. The digital infrastructure has been neglected for decades.

Moreover, Congress has made significant investments. [The Covid-19 stimulus package contained $1 billion for technology modernization.] It is exciting to have both momentum AND money.

Which country are you planning to invest in?

It is a good idea to place a large bet on services that are shared among many agencies such as login and identity verification. is a GSA service that's used by over 30 million people. It received a large investment from the modernization funds and we hope to increase that number to 100 millions in the coming year. is used by 27 agencies, some of which are quite large like Social Security. We're talking to many more. Imagine how much easier it would be to have one login for all interactions with government agencies.

All kinds of online services are available to people who log in. It is difficult to build for government.

The difference between government and private sector is the need to make systems work for all people. Not just those with good credit ratings or active bank accounts. Many of those most in need of government services don't have them.

It is important that we have tech talent present at the beginning of any discussion. Not added at the end. Robin Carnahan (administrator, General Services Administration)

We can also leverage other infrastructure as government: The US Postal Service (USPS) and the Veterans Administration (VA) have locations throughout the country. These federal agencies could be a partner to verify identity and allow people to appear in person.

California and other states have adopted face recognition in order to verify identities for services such as unemployment benefits. However, privacy concerns and accuracy issues have been reported.

Artificial intelligence can provide us with automation that we can use, but we will be careful about it and be aware of any biases.

There are no plans.


Government technology is not well-respected because most of the best technologists work in industry. You may have worked in the US Digital Service or 18F before. These groups place technology workers on short-term tours of duty in government. What else is there to attract top techies?

There are many types of technologists needed: those with previous experience and those who want to make the government their career. Digital Corps is a program for early-career technologists who wish to use their technology skills to serve the government. There wasn't a good way to get there before.

Because it is clear that bad policy can sink good delivery, the Biden administration is focused on this. We must have tech talent available at the beginning of every discussion so that we can deliver any idea.