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Rosselló Bets on Technology to Fix Local Government

By on December 2, 2016

SAN JUAN — Ricardo Rosselló Nevares has one thing in mind when it comes to implementing government technology during the upcoming government term: think like a startup.

The Governor-elect of Puerto Rico, who is currently in Washington, D.C. carrying out several meetings with federal government officials, spoke exclusively to Caribbean Business on his plans to implement his administration’s technology policy, among them establishing a new office that is as furthest away from a traditional government agency as can be.

Puerto Rico Governor-elect Ricardo Rosselló (right) with former White House Chief Innovation Officer, John Paul Farmer, during a meeting last February (Photo: Plan Para Puerto Rico)

It is called the Puerto Rico Innovation & Technology Service (Prits), and it takes a page from the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), an office created by the White House in mid-2014 partly to solve the fallout of HealthCare.Gov’s nearly disastrous launch.

“Prits will be a dynamic office tasked with addressing projects in a timely basis and through the implementation of technology in the government,” Rosselló Nevares said. “These projects will aim to generate favorable results for citizens, reduce the costs of doing business and making government services more effective.”

In terms of its operational structure, Prits will be markedly different from previous attempts by the local government to establish a technology-centric office. Specifically, the appointment of a government chief information officer—a position that began during the Luis Fortuño administration and was kept by the administration of Gov. Alejandro García Padilla before being discontinued, citing fiscal concerns—will not be reinstated by Rosselló Nevares.

“The CIO model is too hierarchical,” he noted. “There are two things against it: one, it’s very difficult to find someone with a wide-ranging expertise of every single aspect of technology, and two, such a model is vulnerable to the government’s bureaucracy problems.”

Instead, Rosselló Nevares envisions a more horizontal operational structure similar to a project management office. “Each project manager would oversee a group of experts charged with dealing with specific areas such as cyber security, information technology implementation, and tech solutions in areas such as health and education,” he said.

Prits would consider hiring talent as fellows in a multi-year capacity, the governor-elect explained. Another possibility is a key provision in the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management & Emergency Relief Act (Promesa), which allows for the temporary transfer of human resources into the office, including those who work in federal government entities such as the USDS.

As to where the money would come from to successfully implement Prits, considering the commonwealth’s dismal fiscal situation, the governor-elect noted that the approach to be adopted by Prits would be more cost-effective, citing the example of The website, touted as the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), stumbled out of the gate after an investment of several hundred million dollars and upwards of a year in development time.

By contrast, the team that was brought together to effectively fix and implement a new system turned things around in a space of just weeks, and resulted in significant savings for the program. According to an article in The Atlantic, the old login system cost $250 million to build and would have required another $70 million annually to stay online. The new system cost about $4 million to build, and its annual maintenance cost is a little less than $1 million. “That is the type of approach we want to implement here,” Rosselló Nevares said.

During the campaign trail, the then gubernatorial candidate for the New Progressive Party was highly critical of contracts that the current government administration has kept with technology firms, often saying that such contracts represented expenditures of $300 to $400 million, citing numbers from the Comptroller’s Office.

Although the governor-elect did not go at length on whether the government would rethink ways to buy digital services and renegotiate contracts with technology providers, he said all options were on the table in terms of achieving better cost-effectiveness, including the possibility of using open-source software.



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