Bonaguro: Put Down Your Digital Hammer

By Published On: August 12, 2022

California Chief Data Officer Joy Bonaguro recently gave a presentation that unpacked and re-imagined the digital status quo of governmental modernization.

Bonaguro’s presentation, titled “Put down your digital hammer,” conveys an idea that’s simple, but revolutionary: “Instead of dragging our processes, regulations, and laws into the online age, maybe we should take a step back. Should the things we digitize even exist?”

Bonaguro dispelled the notion that digitization automatically removes complexity and streamlines processes. Complexity, rather, is built into governmental services to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse–keeping good faith actors from receiving benefits in a quick and timely manner. Digitizing these services may increase the avenues of access, but it doesn’t ultimately tear down any of the red tape.

“There’s a growing body of evidence around simplifying benefits access by just shifting to direct cash transfers,” Bonaguro said. “But instead of having that policy conversation . . . we end up digitizing these really complex benefits programs.”

Bonaguro is arguing that digitization does not remove the complexity that’s been baked into policy, it merely shifts that complexity to a different platform. The digitization process should serve as an opportunity to stop and question the root policy and ask whether that policy is fit for modernization in its current form.

Bonaguro also tackled the popular idea that “fixing services can fix government.” There’s a mantra of “demos, not memos” that conveys the belief that “it is more effective to build than to explain.”

It’s not that simple, says Bonaguro. Memos communicate ideas, and ideas can’t always be built.

“I have personally written memos that have ensured scientists can remotely access supercomputing facilities from around the world, blocked spending $80 million on something we didn’t need, stopped many bad ideas from making it into statute, and led to the creation of the state’s contact tracing program,” Bonaguro said.

Bonaguro’s overarching thesis is simple, but powerful: rules are not written in stone. And before those rules are transferred from stone into code, it’s worth asking if those rules are worthy of modernization in the first place.

Watch the presentation hosted by U.S. Digital Response below:

About the Author: Will Keys

Will Keys writes about technology issues for the GovReport. He is a graduate of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. He can be reached at will at govreport.org