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Why Trump's Infrastructure Plan Needs Regulatory Technology Reform First



This article was originally posted on Forbes.com.

Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska, frustrated by the “red tape” of regulatory bottlenecks, has made federal permitting reform a focus of both his legislative agenda and a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. The senator wants to limit new regulations, put a time limit on federal permit reviews, and create a “one-stop shop” for processing them as well. On these issues, Sullivan seems to have the ear of President Trump, as the president has moved swiftly with an executive order mandating that federal agencies repeal two regulations for every new one instituted. It’s not surprising that a hotel developer would be well acquainted with permitting delays and the impact regulatory reform could have on the success of his much-trumpeted infrastructure and jobs plans. In his victory speech last November, Trump said, “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure.”

While Sullivan and the Trump Administration may be inclined to focus their attention on cutting substantive regulations, a sound strategy would focus on utilizing modern technology to efficiently administer the current regulatory framework. Why?

Most regulations have, at best, a very good reason for existing, or at worst, a powerful constituency that will fight tooth and nail for their continued existence. On the other hand, utilizing technology to help government regulatory processes work more efficiently is something both sides can more easily agree upon. Case in point, it’s an issue Newt Gingrich--one of the president’s biggest supporters--and Lt. Governor of California Gavin Newsom--one of his most vocal opponents--have both supported.

We, as individual consumers, have become accustomed to the simple and efficient delivery of services--from car rides at the touch of a button, to real-time delivery updates on a recent purchase. Technology has made efficient, transparent and predictable service delivery pervasive in our private lives. Why can’t similar technology be applied to government regulatory practices? You might be surprised to learn that it already is.

Innovative cities and counties are utilizing modern cloud-based technology to reduce permitting and inspection delays, replacing stacks of paperwork, lines at City Hall, and busy signals, with a customer experience that resembles Amazon. They also have apps that offer real-time updates on a permit review or inspection schedule. These innovations save time, improve transparency and produce dramatic cost savings. They also allow regulators to actually focus on their missions--like public safety, infrastructure planning, security and environmental protection--rather than administrative drudgery.

The Obama Administration and Republican-controlled Congress both recognized this opportunity at the federal level. They created an online permitting dashboard that is helping streamline permitting of significant federal infrastructure projects. And in 2015, as part of the larger transportation bill, they created the Federal Permitting Improvement Council, tasked with easing regulatory bottlenecks.

Beyond these efforts, the Obama White House embraced the importance of technology in delivering government service. For example, in response to the initial failure of the Healthcare.gov website, the administration created two new agencies made up of technology all stars recruited from across the country--the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) and 18F--and tasked them with jumpstarting the work of bringing government technology into the modern era. The work of the Permitting Improvement Council, USDS and 18F has only just begun, and it is absolutely imperative to making our government work on behalf of the American people. Without a doubt, we should double down on their mandates.

Too many of our federal regulatory agencies operate with obsolete technology that taxpayers currently spend $80 billion a year maintaining. These out-of-date systems add needless cost and delay to what should be routine processes, wasting the time of both project applicants and the regulators.

Sullivan has promised that his forthcoming Rebuild America Now Act will include funding for a federal “one-stop shop” permitting portal. This technology concept has been common in local government permitting for over a decade. It’s a good idea, but more is required to fix the underlying legacy IT systems that our federal agencies use to manage their workloads. To that end, there is bipartisan support in Congress for an IT modernization bill, which would be a positive step in helping federal agencies move their enterprise operations to modern, cloud-based technologies. The House passed a version of the bill called the Modernizing Government Technology Act of 2016 this past session, but the clock ran out before the Senate fully considered it. It should be reintroduced this session and passed without delay.

“Cut the red tape!” is a frequent battle cry of those hoping to release pent-up economic activity. While Trump and Congress will undoubtedly spend time scrutinizing regulations themselves, they should start by looking to the underlying technology we use to administer our regulations. Important work has already been done to make government more efficient, user-friendly, transparent and secure--we know it’s needed, and we’ve got bipartisan consensus on it. Let’s get to work.

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