Op-ed: Promoting innovation in government

We live in a time when technology is transforming almost every aspect of our lives, from how we shop and travel (Amazon, Airbnb, Uber), to how we communicate and find entertainment (Facebook, Instagram, Netflix). Thanks to mobile Internet, almost all human knowledge is now accessible with a few taps on the Smartphone in your pocket.

But one sector that has been very slow to change is government. As a result, our state government is not as efficient or responsive as it needs to be. Just one small example: after taking office this January as the youngest member of the Massachusetts Senate, I flipped open my laptop to get to work. I was surprised to learn the State House still doesn’t have Wi-Fi.

Every day, I hear from constituents who spend hours waiting in lines, making endless phone calls, and taking time off from work to handle routine government business that could probably be completed with a few swipes on an iPhone. Recent high-profile mishaps, from the flawed rollout of the Health Connector to the error-plagued transition to a new computer system for unemployment benefits, have made it painfully clear that failing to properly incorporate new technology comes at significant cost. This isn’t about big government or small government: it’s about efficient government. Massachusetts, as one of our nation’s great innovation centers, can and must do better.

Locally, we’ve seen how new technology can improve government services. The police departments in Belchertown and Ludlow use “text a tip” to follow leads. ShotSpotter, a technology that tracks the location of gunshots, helps to quickly and accurately dispatch police. Chicopee recently set up free Wi-Fi, and Boston has an entire unit dedicated to using technology to improve city services, from fixing potholes to tracking your child’s school bus.

Other states have good examples to learn from, as well. Connecticut set up a program to collect and analyze motor vehicle crash data, giving law enforcement new tools to improve traffic patterns. Utah’s Open Data Catalog improves government transparency by consolidating various types of state data in one location, so citizens have easy access to state maps, demographic info, and more detail about how their tax dollars are spent. I hope to bring more initiatives like these to Western Massachusetts, so we can improve government services and make our Commonwealth more transparent and efficient.

That’s why I’m currently working on several initiatives to promote more innovation in government. I co-sponsored the Innovate Communities Bill, filed by Senator Karen Spilka, which passed the Senate over the summer. This legislation would encourage tech startups to partner with cities and towns on new ways to deliver services. The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative has recommended a new “Center for Excellence” to focus on how to use technology to improve government across various departments, from healthcare and energy to education and transportation.

Technology is rapidly changing the world by speeding up the delivery of goods, services, and information while increasing transparency and accountability.

It’s time we do the same for state government.

Eric P. Lesser is State Senator for the First Hampden & Hampshire District

%d bloggers like this: