April 4, 2014 1:17 pm

Let’s get geeks into government

‘If ever there was a time when it might make sense for more techies to give back by doing public service, that moment is now’
Illustration by Shonagh Rae of a young man walking. Behind him is a tall domed building©Shonagh Rae

Fifteen years ago, Brett Goldstein seemed to be just another tech entrepreneur. He was working as IT director of OpenTable, then a start-up website for restaurant bookings. The company was thriving – and subsequently did a very successful initial public offering. Life looked very sweet for Goldstein. But when the World Trade Center was attacked in 2001, Goldstein had a moment of epiphany. “I spent seven years working in a startup but, directly after 9/11, I knew I didn’t want my whole story to be about how I helped people make restaurant reservations. I wanted to work in public service, to give something back,” he recalls – not just by throwing cash into a charity tin, but by doing public service. So he swerved: in 2006, he attended the Chicago police academy and then worked for a year as a cop in one of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods. Later he pulled the disparate parts of his life together and used his number-crunching skills to build the first predictive data system for the Chicago police (and one of the first in any western police force), to indicate where crime was likely to break out.

This was such a success that Goldstein was asked by Rahm Emanuel, the city’s mayor, to create predictive data systems for the wider Chicago government. The fruits of this effort – which include a website known as “WindyGrid” – went live a couple of years ago, to considerable acclaim inside the techie scene.

This tale might seem unremarkable. We are all used to hearing politicians, business leaders and management consultants declare that the computing revolution is transforming our lives. And as my colleague Tim Harford pointed out in these pages last week, the idea of using big data is now wildly fashionable in the business and academic worlds.

But on another level, Goldstein’s little tale of self-discovery is thought-provoking – particularly when a multitude of tech companies are floating and making their founders extraordinarily rich. One of the dirty secrets about the big data revolution is that while private-sector companies have grabbed on to it with glee, most civilian government bodies have lagged. This is partly because public-sector institutions are cash-strapped or plagued with painfully slow decision-making systems (or both). But there is another issue: the type of entrepreneurial whizz-kids who are now becoming fabulously wealthy often hate the idea of working for government.

In America when top bankers become rich, they often want to “give back” by having a second career in public service: just think of all those Wall Street financiers who have popped up at the US Treasury in recent years. But hoodie-wearing geeks do not usually do the same. Sure, there are some former techie business leaders who are indirectly helping government. Steve Case, a co-founder of AOL, has supported White House projects to boost entrepreneurship and combat joblessness. Tech entrepreneurs also make huge donations to philanthropy. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has given funds to Newark education. And the whizz-kids have also occasionally been summoned by the White House in times of crisis. When there was a disastrous launch of the government’s healthcare website late last year, the Obama administration enlisted the help of some of the techies who had been involved with the president’s election campaign.

But what you do not see is many tech entrepreneurs doing what Goldstein did: deciding to spend a few years in public service, as a government employee. There aren’t many Zuckerberg types striding along the corridors of federal or local government.

. . .

It is not difficult to work out why. To most young entrepreneurs, the idea of working in a state bureaucracy sounds like utter hell. But if there was ever a time when it might make sense for more techies to give back by doing stints of public service, that moment is now. The civilian public sector badly needs savvier tech skills (just look at the disaster of that healthcare website for evidence of this). And as the sector’s founders become wealthier and more powerful, they need to show that they remain connected to society as a whole. It would be smart political sense.

So I applaud what Goldstein has done. I also welcome that he is now trying to persuade his peers to do the same, and that places such as the University of Chicago (where he teaches) and New York University are trying to get more young techies to think about working for government in between doing those dazzling IPOs. “It is important to see more tech entrepreneurs in public service. I am always encouraging people I know to do a ‘stint in government”. I tell them that giving back cannot just be about giving money; we need people from the tech world to actually work in government, “ Goldstein says.

But what is really needed is for more technology CEOs and leaders to get involved by actively talking about the value of public service – or even encouraging their employees to interrupt their private-sector careers with the occasional spell as a government employee (even if it is not in a sector quite as challenging as the police). Who knows? Maybe it could be Sheryl Sandberg’s next big campaigning mission. After all, if she does ever jump back to Washington, that could have a powerful demonstration effect for techie women and men. And shake DC a little too.

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gillian.tett@ft.com
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Letter in response to this column:

Geeks will have to fight ‘malicious compliance’ / From Mr Michael Ross

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