Q&A: DisruptDC co-founder sees the need for a government/tech nexus

After 14 years at Apple, Sarah Bonk wants to see more of Silicon Valley's 'Go do it' spirit in government -- especially when it comes to U.S. elections

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On the same day tech leaders took part in the inaugural summit of the White House’s American Technology Council, former Apple manager Sarah Bonk, who spent more than 14 years at the company, helped launch DisruptDC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan alliance of business leaders she co-founded to improve government and elections.

DisruptDC’s president and CEO, Charles Kolb, served in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and was longtime leader of the Committee for Economic Development. He plans to advance reform at the federal, state and local levels by making elections competitive, aligning incentives in policymaking and upgrading government with modern technology. The alliance sees dysfunction in government as bad for business and the overall economy.

Bonk, who majored in Public Policy in college, first came up with the idea while still at Apple, when her pastime became improving the state of government. “I could see broken government was preventing progress on so many fronts in America and the world,” Bonk said. She left Apple early last year to get DisruptDC under way.

Computerworld Contributing Writer Sandra Gittlen talked with Bonk about the alliance’s plans as well as how government reform affects business and IT.

Silicon Valley is not often thought of as the birthplace of government reform. What made you think you could have an impact on policies created in Washington, D.C.? Surprisingly it was a natural fit. [Businesses in] Silicon Valley are just like the rest of businesses in America. They crave predictability [from government]. Silicon Valley is also full of big thinkers who are paying attention to the world and it has a maker culture, a 'go do it' culture. I’ve lived in places where the response is [sarcastically], ‘Oh, that’s cute’ to think you can change the world. That doesn’t happen out here.

Where did you begin this effort? I started out by getting to know a whole bunch of grassroots organizations. First, I did cash contributions, but later I began volunteering, running events, live tweeting, arranging hackathons, etc. I was able to do all this while still working at Apple.

And starting up DisruptDC? I met Dylan Ratigan [former host of MSNBC’s The Dylan Ratigan Show and co-founder of Helical Holdings Inc.] several years ago and started pitching him on my ideas to address government dysfunction. We stayed in touch and he knew about my grassroots volunteering. When we started DisruptDC, I asked him to join the board and he said yes and connected me with Charles Kolb. Charlie’s a boomer and a Republican so there’s a generational and political gap between him and much of the Bay Area, but he’s perfect to lead our effort. He’s a world changer and he understands the potential for technology to change the world.

How does the Trump administration agenda impact DisruptDC’s goals? The stated goal of the administration is to deliver better services and create policies that are beneficial to businesses, especially in technology. I have spoken with people who meet regularly with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s senior advisor, and improving government tech is right near the top of his agenda. Ours, too.

Let’s talk about elections, since that is a key focus for you. What do you see as the major issue with them? The structure of elections and how they are run has been a divisive issue in our country. Some people have been prevented from voting and cut from the rolls unfairly. Some people believe there are too many requirements in terms of presenting ID.

On the other side, people feel that illegal voting is happening in large numbers. Our election systems are so antiquated and data management is so poor that some places aren’t sure whether people voted that shouldn’t have been voting.

We have to make sure that everyone who wants to vote and has a right to vote can register and vote easily. At the same time, we have to ensure that people who shouldn’t be voting aren’t. We seem to be stuck in a battle where people think these two goals are mutually exclusive, but they aren’t. In 2017, we have the technology for secure elections that also support voters’ rights. We just need to make the investment.

Government needs to make the investment? Exactly. It’s government’s job and it needs to happen. What’s a more fundamental right than having a voice in government? And government is not going to be truly accountable if it’s not getting accurate information about what voters want.

Businesses understand that you have to put money in now to save money later. Our unwillingness to invest in public elections is part of what created this deep division in America. A huge swath of Americans don’t trust the outcomes of elections. Improving the mechanism itself could help elevate public trust.

What is DisruptDC advocating regarding investments? A lot of our advocacy is about the basics, including the data management systems and information security to support states in having accurate voter rolls and accurate election results. We want to look at both the processes and the technologies to support those processes.

For the future, we are taking a serious look at open-source elections software and blockchain. Every election has to be fully auditable. Imagine if you could cast a vote and there would be no way for someone to manipulate it because it went into [a protected] blockchain [database]. Right now, we have no way to evaluate software and we don’t know where the data goes. In some cases, a state’s election data is sent out of state. Open source would help address that.

For people that understand our elections are not secure and not accurate right now, addressing security and auditability could be a game changer.

What about making better use of mobile technology and biometrics? Mobile voting and biometrics might make sense down the road, but the technology is not ubiquitous enough or affordable enough and the public is just not there yet.

Right now, we are focusing on the fundamentals like maintaining voter rolls without disenfranchising anyone. Today, states get spreadsheets of names to strike from the record, resulting in errors. The database technology is already there, but we have the challenge in America that we value our freedom and privacy, and citizens don’t want the government tracking them all the time.

It’s an interesting challenge that voting information and personal information haven’t come together so that secretaries of state can update their voting rolls.

Elections are run by states and counties, not the federal government. How do you handle that? President Trump said he wanted to drain the swamp. Elections are going to have to be better and we’ve got ideas on how to accomplish that. Our work is going to be state by state and county by county. And much like IT faces every day, some states and counties will be early adopters, come up with great ideas, and have the capital and political will to make it happen, and other states and counties won’t. We will look for where the opportunities exist and add our voice to those efforts. But the federal government has advanced election tech in the past and it can do so again.

So who would be an early adopter? In the same way the military helped advance the Internet with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the military might be helpful here. The military, which supports mail-in ballots [from active duty personnel serving abroad], can serve as a testbed for advancements in electronic ballots, voter authentication and other technologies.

Why should Computerworld readers be interested in the reform of election systems? In addition to my Apple career, I used to work in the IT department at a large electric utility. Our dysfunctional government is the number one issue obstructing economic progress and that’s being felt by folks in the IT sector and beyond. If we want to be competitive and invigorate the economy and tech sector and do all the things we are capable of doing, government has to be able to keep up with advancements in technology and society. Business and tech folks are seeing all these amazing ideas come out and most of our government is still in the 20th century. We need to bring government into the 21st century to address the challenges of technology in society. We are the longest standing democracy, the wealthiest country on the planet, and we have the technology. We just need to make the investment.

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