Philadelphia City Commissioner Stephanie Singer is our guest commentator today, reflecting on the challenges of injecting real innovation into the procurement process. So, in her words, Madam Commissioner Singer...

After years of outside hacktivism, it was hard to get used to the confines of government when I first won a seat on the Philadelphia County Board of Elections.  Putting up a web site used to be simple; now I have to clear it with the Ethics Board and the Law Department. Government moves slowly through its set processes. In other realms, techies can act fast. Here, we have to jump through hoops.  The hoops serve an important purpose as a mechanism for holding government officials accountable to the public.  The price we pay -- old-fashioned design on government web sites, roll-outs that are slow (at best) -- may well be inevitable.

Anyone hoping to influence a government’s technology decisions needs to understand the procurement process.  As a protection against giving anyone the inside track, governments must specify requirements in a Request for Proposal (“RFP”). Once the RFP is written, further innovation is difficult, if not impossible.  So, modernizing America’s voting technology is a question of getting modern specifications into RFPs at the State and even the county level.

My own county, Philadelphia, is now in the process of developing an RFP for voting system "modernization."  Even with substantial money at stake ($25 million, according to the capital plan), not to mention the future of voting in Philadelphia for the next 10-15 years, the team first assembled to write the RFP lacked the necessary expertise in election technology.  To be sure, there is plenty of general tech expertise on the team -- in fact, Philadelphia is a leader in civic technology -- but none of the people in the position to influence the decisions thought to include an expert on election technology. As a result, Philadelphia may very well overspend and end up with an outdated system the day it launches.

I suspect Philadelphia is not alone.  This scenario is surely playing out all over the country in different forms.  In order for the dream of truly innovative election technology to become a reality, there are three elements to address.

  1. Political Process.  First, somebody has to do the political work of influencing the decision-makers.  That's not a job for the faint of heart! 
  2. Development Process.  Producing a system that can achieve the so-called "VAST" mandate (meaning the system itself is verifiable, accurate, secure, and transparent in process) likely means using "open source" principles (something the readership here is all too familiar with.)  Software development is not overly difficult; there are tedious elements to making high assurance systems and there needs to be far more invested in design for usability but its all relatively straight forward.  The key is using "open source" principles to implement the VAST mandate elements. 
  3. Adoption Process. It turns out that adopting open source election software is sometimes not for the faint of heart either.  Your gut instinct is that this should be the easiest part, right?  Sure, except that traversing the procurement environment is the challenge.  There is a need for education about the acquisition of open source for those charged with the procurement, and that relates back to the political process (item #1).

Let's be clear: a "stakeholder community" comprised of elections administrators, experts, or officials like myself do weigh-in heavily on the adoption decision.  But not autonomously.  Political processes inevitably bring other stakeholders and other agendas to bear.  They cannot be ignored.  However, they must be enlightened.

Technologists working on innovations like the TrustTheVote Project should ask themselves how they can get involved in county and state politics in order to build bridges to the government officials with the power to implement election technology.  I subscribe to the emerging principle pronounced by OSET that "code causes change."  However, I am equally certain that unless we find a way to inject fresh technical thinking into the procurement process starting with the politics, all the innovation in the world will be silenced by a status quo of 20th century elections technology mindset.

About Philadelphia City Commissioner Stephanie Singer

Stephanie Singer won a seat on the Philadelphia County Board of Elections in 2011. Commissioner Singer studied computer science at Stanford and earned her Ph.D in Mathematics from NYU.  You can learn more about Stephanie here and follow her on Twitter: @sfsinger