News|Puerto Rico

Holding our Government to the Highest Digital Standards


Presented to the House Committee on Natural Resources, at the oversight hearing on
“Examining Challenges in Puerto Rico’s Recovery and
the Role of the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB)”
Tuesday, November 7, 2017, 10:00am
Room 1324, Longworth House Office Building
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I present this written testimony as a concerned citizen of Puerto Rico.

I’d like to thank the Chairman for his leadership in holding this hearing to “Examine Challenges in Puerto Rico’s Recovery and the Role of the FOMB”. Thank you also to all members of the Committee for your attention to this matter.

This hearing cites concern about “whether the tools the Oversight Board currently possesses will sufficiently allow for efficient, transparent and prudent reconstruction.”

I would ask, can the Fiscal Oversight Board assist in rebuilding our digital infrastructure in a way that we help our government do a better job of fulfilling its responsibilities to enable better services that cost less and accomplish more for citizens?  Effective government contracting for technology services that allow for the most talented people to service government needs would not only ensure the survival of our digital ecosystem, it is an essential component to guarantee reconstruction efforts will improve people’s quality of life in the long run.

The government needs to provide the data and the tools to enable such efficient reconstruction, the same way that an underlying processor, memory, and sensors combine to serve as the platform for building the iPhone.* Like all organized systems, rationalizing the Puerto Rico Government’s citizen information requires a common identity system that may serve as a platform to facilitate better services for citizens.

The FOMB recommended in their annual report to “dedicate Federal Digital Service personnel to co-create a Common Identity Platform for Puerto Rico.”  At present, if you need access to a Puerto Rico Government service online, good luck in finding the right link to the right service.  Once you do find it, it has its own registration system.  There are over 40+ different registration systems for different services; some agencies even have several registration systems themselves. Case in point, registration #1[1] and registration #2[2], also broken link #1 after leading you there for driver license renewal from this link.

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The problem is there is no real ownership of these services and no structure with the full legislative powers and financial backing to fix the problem.  Ask the CIO of Puerto Rico if he has the authority to update, then ask the OMB director why he wants that authority and how often he reviews reports on traffic data and mobile usage.

However, does the board have the authority to improve the underlying operations of government agencies?  This is a crucial element before we can build apps that transform how citizens consume these services.

The Oversight Board on October 31, 2017, implemented its contract review authority pursuant to Section 204(b) of PROMESA. Per unanimous vote, the Oversight Board required Puerto Rico to submit “all contracts or series of related contracts . . . with an aggregate expected value of $10M or more.”

A contract revision of $10 million or more, with regards to technology, may have been sufficient in the1990’s, but we are in 2017.  We can now get things done much better at a fraction of the cost (think 90% less!).  There should be a separate revision process for all technology contracts along with performance reviews based on best practices to ensure delivery of working products with regular, continuous delivery throughout contract execution.

Previous administrations in Puerto Rico have established a bureaucratic contract review process with deficient results.  It creates a brutal bottleneck in the evaluation process that may result in expiration of contract renewals, leaving specific agencies without any service or support.  It also doesn’t solve the issue of ensuring the right vendor is selected, so the contract reviews are simply going over a “politicking contract” assigned to the wrong provider in the first place.  A more open and well-designed procurement process is the sure way to attract the best talent and ensure a better price for the service.

Another issue is the talent behind the contract review process.  You need people with a wide range of skills to review a wide range of technologies, from telecommunications to licensing to application development, these all require different people to review accordingly, ask the right questions and challenge assumptions.

We should strive for a contract review process that optimizes for the best supplier at the best cost to provide the best service.  From our experience, the proposed process will drive agencies to optimize for lengthier agreements and a higher probability of approval.[3]

A report on Federal IT contracts presented by the US Digital Service concluded that 94% of government technology projects were either delayed or over budget and that the final products either didn’t work or didn’t fit the needs of the actual users.  The good news is that the Federal enabled a process that allows our government to catch up to the private sector by establishing a procurement process focusing on outcomes, continuous delivery, and products that truly work for end users.

This hearing aims to assess 1) what the Oversight Board is doing immediately in response to the hurricanes and whether the Board needs additional tools to ensure Puerto Rico’s successful recovery; 2) the strength of local entities in ensuring transparent and accountable use of Federal resources.

A “digital way forward”

The board has the tools to ensure a successful recovery from a digital perspective, it just needs to empower the right people pursuing the correct strategy.  (Sec. 103) of PROMESA states that Federal agencies and territorial governments may detail employees to the board.  The governor of Puerto Rico reached out to the Fiscal Control and Oversight Board on December 26th, 2016 requesting US Digital Service resources to assist in building an internal governance structure to deliver better services.

The US Digital Service has a team of procurement experts enabling new contracting methodologies in the federal government.  Their mission is simple: encourage agencies to use contracting strategies that get the most value for taxpayers’ money.

The question is whether our local government has the will to deliver on this vision. Two governors tried to establish an effective digital structure and failed, one attempt is highlighted in a recent an interview with former Governor Luis Fortuño. By bringing the right people on board the FOMB can serve as an enabler.

If there’s a need for a “Chief Transformation Officer” at PREPA, there’s surely a need for a Digital Governance Taskforce with oversight across all government digital services. It may be modeled after the proposed Technology Modernization Act, which adopts USDS guidelines to modernize IT in the Federal Government. We are spending money like it’s the 1990’s and it is 2017. Government digital services do not need to be improved – they need to be re-architected from the ground up.

There are pockets of success within this administration, evidenced by the recent deployment of POS devices to process EBT transfers in remote areas of Puerto Rico.  In this case, the role of government was more of a convener; once Luis Arocho, Puerto Rico’s Chief Information Officer, identified a problem, he brought together the parties it wanted to engage with this problem and deliver the solution.  This story is not the exception, but it is also hardly the rule.

Post-hurricane response issues include FEMA being unable to process over 100,000 applications due to lack of verifiable address data, people going five times to the Department of Labor for unemployment and walking out empty handed and the AMA bus service operating but with no way to know when the bus will arrive and you must have exact change (.75c) to board.   There are simple solutions to make these services significantly better but the government is unable to deliver on them.

We should expect our government to provide ‘platform services’ that the private sector can leverage to deliver better services to citizens.*  What do I mean by this?  How does our government build and leverage “platform services”?  Are we going to allow it to build more ‘user registration’ systems and passwords?  Or will we leverage an existing login platform to build new services on top of it? The FOMB recommended approaching USDS about this point and the Governor is on the same page with that.

Joining us on November 16th at Dear Fiscal Board speaker series at New America will be Vivian Graubard and Aaron Snow, both founding members of the US Digital Service and 18f respectively, the two most forward-thinking digital agencies in the Federal government, who will be discussing the roadmap to implement an effective digital strategy for the FOMB to move forward on Puerto Rico.

We intend to prepare a report on the results of this event and share the report with the FOMB, the government of Puerto Rico, the House Committee on Natural Resources, the Senate Energy Committee (Senator Murkowski), FEMA and the White House.

Our work is based on deep experience with the Puerto Rico government and a hope for an economic future that embraces the best practices of 21st-century digitalization. The devastation of Hurricane Maria provides an opportunity for a smart rebuilding of the Puerto Rico government’s functions and services.

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[3]Alberto Colon Viera collaborated on this topic

* Inspired content from “What’s the Future” by Tim O’Reilly

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