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Rewiring Government

The Department of Better Technology helps governments deliver great digital services to the people who depend on them.

Posts tagged with “GovTech”

GovTech Link Roundup: Volume 7

Discovery research and modular procurement in action.

18F takes a deeper look at modular procurement and discusses their approach to a new system for the Forest Service. The Technology Transformation Service started this engagement with discovery research, “a process used to better understand what people need from a product or service,” instead of diving into the work. In the end, this upfront feedback helped them build a better user experience and laid the foundation for a more trusting partnership. (Keep an eye out for the rest of the series on their blog.)

If you’d like to see how modular procurement works “in the wild,” look no further than the Child Welfare Digital Services (CDWS) project. CDWS is an attempt by the State of California and local agencies to implement a new child welfare reporting system “using Agile methodologies, free/open source software (FOSS) and user-centered design.” They just awarded a new contract to CivicActions, who will provide development operations management for the project.

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GovTech Link Roundup: Volume 6

Tech fellows wanted.

The San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation (SFMOCI) is looking to add two new innovation fellows to the team. If you’re interested in joining the team responsible for consistent, forward-thinking projects, check out their blog post, or go straight to the application form (hosted on Screendoor).

New America just announced its first class of Public Interest Technology Fellows. New America President and CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter says that the team “is looking to build an ecosystem for the field of public interest technology”—work that will hopefully shape the way that NGOs work with technology and data.

An update on the White House Tech Summit.

In last week’s roundup, we brought you some news about the White House Tech Summit, including Jennifer Pahlka’s reasons for attending. Luckily, she’s back with two more blog posts. In the first, she praises the truly wonderful response she received from the CfA community, from which trolls were notably missing. The second post offers a rundown of the day’s activities and talks, along with Pahlka’s impressions of the day and her fellow attendees. As you’d expect, her commentary points out the importance of truly improving government services, not just public-facing websites.

Online voting?

Voting has been a hot topic over the past few weeks, and with the recent allegations of foreign interference, most of the commentary has revolved around creating a simpler and more secure process. Predicting Our Future recently published a podcast series on online voting and the far-reaching implications of moving away from paper ballots entirely.

Do yourself a favor and listen to these three fascinating episodes. You’ll come away with greater appreciation for the complexity (and fragility) of our electoral system, plus plenty of intelligent talking points about securing elections against hacking and increasing voter turnout for your next stop at the water cooler.

Read something great this week? Share it with us at hello@dobt.co.

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GovTech Link Roundup: Volume 5

GovTech funding and the path to $100MM ARR.

One potential mark of startup success is funding—namely, progressively-larger rounds of funding. Government Technology Magazine dug into the funding history for companies on their GovTech Top 100 list to find out just how much funding these companies were commanding in each round, along with the increase in capital from round to round. (GovTech funding may be gaining momentum, too. Govtech Fund recently invested in seven more companies, more than doubling their portfolio.)

Of course, healthy revenue is the other big marker of success. Nick Bowden is back with a teardown of the path to $100MM ARR. Aside from the usual suspects (access to cash and market size), he discusses how the founders’ competencies, the product’s value-add, and the team’s makeup can all affect adoption and, ultimately, the company’s bottom line.

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GovTech Link Roundup: Volume 4

Federal IT: Two steps forward, one step back…

Amazon is working on a new GovCloud region, set to open in 2018. The AWS GovCloud (US-East) Region will be a bit closer to target customers in the federal government (although isolated from U.S. East AWS), safeguard against data loss from potential disasters in the Pacific Northwest, and comply with all of the same compliance standards as the existing region.

Last week, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released the latest Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) Scorecard. Even though agencies’ progress seems to have slowed across the board, USAID walked away with the first A grade ever awarded. You can view the scorecard itself here, courtesy of FedScoop.

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GovTech Link Roundup: Volume 3

What the heck is a blockchain?!

The a16z podcast takes Capitol Hill to chat with Representatives Jared Polis (D-Colorado) and David Schweikert (R-Arizona) about possible applications for blockchain technologies, way beyond cryptocurrencies. The 20-minute episode will leave you with plenty of cocktail party worthy soundbites about everything from information privacy to more effective foreign aid.

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GovTech Link Roundup: Volume 2

Invasion of the chatbots. (Coming to a city near you.)

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services just added a chatbot to their support team. The bot, named Emma, should be able to answer most visitors’ questions, but if she gets stumped, she’ll switch you over to a live representative. In addition to streamlining customer support, the bot also knows how to handle personally identifiable information (PII) with kid-gloves; chat logs are purged after the session ends, or, if you’re transferred to a representative, the bot will scrub PII from the conversation before handing everything over.

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GovTech Link Roundup: Volume 1

Keeping up with industry news can be overwhelming, so DOBT’s weekly Link Roundup aims to be a one-stop shop for GovTech (and GovTech-adjacent) news.

In this first installment: Local governments and the companies that serve them; lots of GovTech funding; and trivia from the history of technology in the White House.

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Winter 2017 Roundup: The best innovation projects

We love to brag about our customers, especially when they’re using Screendoor to tackle important problems and advance their organizations with innovative ideas.

Bureaucracy and innovation can seem mutually exclusive, but our customers are proving that they’re not resistant to change—in fact, they’re actively seeking it.

The projects below are a sampling of their best ideas, including accelerators and innovation challenges. If you’re looking for inspiration, you’re in the right place.

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Against the Executive Order on Refugees and Visas

Picture of the American flag.

Yesterday, I joined fellow tech CEOs and investors in pledging to stand in opposition to the Executive Order on Refugees and Visas. The pledge affirms our commitment to:

  1. Supporting all our people regardless of their religion or national origin and to raising our voices forcefully against such actions [that restrict freedom of expression, religion and movement] at all levels of our government.

  2. Providing whatever support necessary to any of our employees and their families affected by the Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.”

  3. Encouraging an open and honest dialogue on the importance of inclusivity and equity in enabling shared success and prosperity across America.

In December, we also signed a statement on civil liberties with the following pledge:

  1. We pledge to unconditionally protect our people from the erosion of their civil liberties, and to speak up and resist such attempts.

  2. We categorically refuse to contribute our skills or platforms to any effort that infringes on civil liberties by any government agency.

  3. We accept a responsibility to partner with communities where the effects of rapidly changing technologies have hurt our fellow Americans. As a business community that has built a formidable leadership and impact globally, it is our patriotic duty to find innovative ways to help create New Economy jobs throughout our country.

The Executive Order is against our values as a company and as a country. It fails to achieve its stated goal of keeping America safe, and it assaults the core American ideals of civil liberties and equal protection under the law.

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Announcing Screendoor for Government

Today, we’re excited to unveil the new Screendoor for Government!

Yes, we’ve always served government, but with Screendoor for Government, we’re doubling down on our commitment to the groups that Screendoor was created to serve—cities, states, and federal agencies.

This means outlining our vision for modern and sustainable digital services, which you can see reflected in the newly designed product page and in our recently published white paper, A Vision for Paperless Government.

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GovTech 100: Department of Better Technology makes the list for 2017

For the second year running, we’ve been named as a GovTech 100 Company. This list recognizes the companies that are building technology for government as a primary customer, not an afterthought.

We’re extremely honored to be recognized, and even more proud to serve the public sector alongside the other brilliant companies on this list.

You can read GovTech’s full announcement here or view the full list here.

P.S. We made our own list of personal favorites in the industry. (Don’t miss Part 2!)

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White Paper: The future of digital government and paperless forms

We’re about to publish our first white paper.

In it, we outline our vision for the future of government, led by the complete digitization of forms and the business processes behind them.

With this white paper, we’re providing a roadmap for success and a long checklist of vital features so that anyone in the public sector can make the transition to paperless forms.

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Interview: David Robinson on ethics and civil rights in a big data world

Quote from David Robinson, excerpted from the transcript below.

In this episode of Rewiring Government, CEO Joshua Goldstein talks to David Robinson, principal at Upturn, about civil rights in the digital age. They cover big data, the ethics ruling company research labs, and ways to hold algorithms accountable, particularly when it comes to poor, vulnerable, or otherwise disadvantaged people.

Use the player above to listen, or subscribe on iTunes and Google Play! You can also add our RSS feed to your favorite podcast app. If you like this episode, rate and review us on iTunes, and tell your friends.

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Interview: Swati Mylavarapu on government service delivery and reinventing citizen experience

Quote from Swati Mylavarapu, excerpted from the transcript below.

In this episode of Rewiring Government, CEO Joshua Goldstein talks to Swati Mylavarapu, a partner at VC firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, about the challenges and opportunities for software startups, and tech companies more broadly, in helping government improve the way they operate and deliver public services to citizens. The conversation is bookended by some bigger picture questions about the role that technology companies play in solving some of society’s largest problems.

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Our favorite GovTech companies (Part 2)

Last week, we shared five of our favorite GovTech companies, but, to be fair, that list wasn’t exactly comprehensive.

This week, we’re going to brag about five more companies doing great work in this industry. As an added bonus, ELGL also recognized all of them in their ELGL Choice Awards. (That’s how you know we have good taste!)

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Our favorite GovTech companies (Part 1)

We share success stories from our customers pretty often, but once in a while, we like to highlight the work of other companies in the GovTech space.

We’ve been in this business for a while, and we can testify that it’s not always easy to do business in the public sector. Despite that, we’ve seen an explosion of other companies stepping up to help government work better. These companies are helping to shepherd the public sector into the 21st century, and we’re super excited to see what they come up with next.

So, without further ado, here are five of our favorite companies, in no particular order.

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Technology, identity, and refugees: An interview with Hannes Gassert

Recently, our CEO Joshua Goldstein sat down with Hannes Gassert, a Swiss civic entrepreneur who believes that business and government are inextricable. Gassert rejects the idea that business motivations and the greater good should stand diametrically opposed.

Simple, right?

In the United States, we don’t need to look any further than our current political climate to see what happens when this goes horribly wrong. In Switzerland, however, a direct democracy in which you can call a referendum on any topic with only 100,000 signatures, the picture looks more hopeful.

With such a direct line into the legislative process, shouldn’t citizens be more connected, more able to leverage their influence onto governmental processes? And shouldn’t government run more efficiently than in does in the US?

In his conversation with Goldstein, Gassert challenged these assumptions. He pointed to the lack of truly open, usable data and the lack of a cohesive feedback loop to facilitate real communication within his own country.

Indeed, this lack of communication is one of the largest challenges facing government, not just in Switzerland.

With stark lines drawn between government and citizens, there simply isn’t an easy way to move vital information to the people and projects that need it most, usually until disaster strikes.

Too often we try to bridge the divide when the mess is already too big.

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Interview: Alex Howard on engaging citizens with government and making data meaningful

Quote from Alex Howard, excerpted from the transcript below.

In this episode of Rewiring Government, Josh talks to Alex Howard, a senior analyst at the Sunlight Foundation. They discuss how government harnesses technology to regain trust, the surprisingly meaningful impact of nonprofit tax data, and trends in open government and police accountability.

Use the player above to listen, or subscribe on iTunes and Google Play! You can also add our RSS feed to your favorite podcast app. If you like this episode, rate and review us on iTunes, and tell your friends.

A transcript of the interview is below, edited for content and flow.

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Interview: Rachel Lunsford on creating the Blue Button program and “Midwestern nice”

Quote from Rachel Lunsford, excerpted from the transcript below.

In this episode of Rewiring Government, Josh talks to Rachel Lunsford, the project manager of the Blue Button Initiative at the Veteran Affairs Agency. They discuss the program’s development, managers who say “yes,” user feedback, and using “Midwestern nice” to get things done.

Use the player above to listen, or subscribe on iTunes and Google Play! You can also add our RSS feed to your favorite podcast app. If you like this episode, rate and review us on iTunes, and tell your friends.

A lightly edited transcript is below.

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Introducing our podcast, Rewiring Government

Every day, we talk to people in government who are interested in pushing their city, state or federal agency to become a better provider of digital services. They frequently ask us for advice and we are happy to share.

One thing struck us recently: despite living and breathing GovTech, we know only a fraction of the stories and hard-won lessons from our colleagues working in the guts of government to make change.

That’s why we’re going to try something new: the Rewiring Government podcast. Starting with the Presidential Innovation Fellows, the Code for America fellows, and other GovTech leaders, we’ll dig deep to identify how change in government actually happens.

Rewiring Government will feature:

  • Big Thinking and Implementation. We want to hear stories from people who are willing to both think big and get their hands dirty with the implementation details.

  • Optimism and Earnestness. We want to explore how to navigate the institutional pressures aligned against change makers. It’s easy to be cynical in these contexts, but we won’t be.

  • Operationally Relevant Advice. Every experience is unique and idiosyncratic, but we are convinced that there are generalizable lessons and an audience that is hungry to hear them. Beyond technical best practices, we want to hear what it takes to make an implementation a success.

We’re also excited about this podcast because we think it can be a first cut of history of Obama-era GovTech innovation. So much has happened at every level of government since 2009, so as we enter the last year or so of this particular chapter of GovTech, we think this podcast can help capture these important lessons.

I really enjoyed speaking with our first two guests. Right now, you can hear Justin Erlich, the Data and Technology Advisor to California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Soon, we’ll have Rachel Lunsford, former product manager for the Blue Button at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Enjoy!

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Interview: Justin Erlich on gaining insights from open data

Quote from Justin Erlich, excerpted from the transcript below.

In the first episode of our podcast, Joshua Goldstein, our CEO, talks to Justin Erlich, the Data and Technology Advisor to California Attorney General Kamala Harris. We discuss Kamala Harris’ launch of OpenJustice, one of the most high-profile criminal justice transparency initiatives in the country, especially relevant given the public debate around racial bias in policing.

Use the player above to listen, or subscribe on iTunes and Google Play! You can also add our RSS feed to your favorite podcast app. If you like this episode, rate and review us on iTunes, and tell your friends.

A lightly edited transcript is below.

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The Bright Future of Digital Government Services

Today I’m happy to announce our new mission statement:

We help governments deliver great digital services to the people who depend on them.

As a company, we have our roots in procurement. RFP-EZ, the precursor to Screendoor, was built during a Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) assignment to the U.S. Small Business Administration. The product provided both a forms solution and a workflow tool that allowed teams to evaluate bids. As Screendoor started to gain a foothold in the new GovTech marketplace beyond procurement, we observed two things:

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Our “New Client Guide,” and how we educate government about Software-as-a-Service

When purchasing software, government tends to play by a fixed set of rules.

First, stakeholders are convened, requirements checklists are created, and RFPs are issued. For entirely custom-developed systems, the work might take years to complete, if not decades. A popular alternative is to purchase software as “Commercial off-the-shelf” (COTS), a practice which aims to reduce risk and time-to-delivery, but still results in the same failings as custom-developed software. These are the two most popular methods that the federal government uses to purchase software, yet they’re practically designed for failure. The Standish Group reports that 94% of these large-scope projects fail in one way or another.

A big part of our mission at DOBT is to change these rules.

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The Data Revolution Has a Software Problem

In Dodoma, Tanzania’s administrative capital, a group of visibly frustrated economists and statisticians discussed their work inside a sweltering room. They were from the nearby Singida Region, and they were on the front lines of what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called the Data Revolution, an effort to find innovative data collection methods that can measure progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Their day-to-day work is helping to answer an important question. Given primary school enrollment rates, immunization rates, agricultural productivity, and other important quantitative indicators, how well are the people of Singida actually faring?

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DOBT at the Code for America Summit

The DOBT team will be at the Code for America Summit in Oakland this week! As in previous years, we look forward to seeing on display a mix of grit and pragmatic optimism that’s characteristic of a community we’re proud to be a part of.

Oakland skyline

Here are some of the sessions we have our eye on:

If you spot one of us, make sure to say hi! Let’s talk open data production, form design, remote work meetings, or all of the above.

Image used under a CC BY 2.0 license.

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Public infrastructure and government IT have a lot in common


Our public infrastructure is in bad shape. A federal report from 2006 deemed 70,000 bridges “structurally deficient,” the American Society of Civil Engineers gives our infrastructure a “D+” grade, and the issue has even been featured on popular television programs like 60 Minutes and The Daily Show. But when it comes time to spend money on this vital infrastructure, our governments are reluctant to open the pocketbook until we reach a time of crisis.

Government IT is no different.

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Defeating the Culture of No, Part I

Have you ever sat in a meeting, tried to move things forward, and instead of a constructive meeting about possibilities, it’s become an open session on why anything proposed isn’t possible? Have you ever worked in an environment where most of the meetings you’ve had end up this way?

Chances are, if you’ve ever worked in government or you’ve ever worked in the enterprise, you have. Whether it’s just that one cynical guy in the corner, your general counsel’s office, or, well, you, anybody who has worked for a reasonable period of time has encountered this kind of culture. I call it the “Culture of No.”

The Culture of No is a pervasive culture that’s awful to work in. It’s a culture of mitigation. It’s the culture that prefers short-term preservation at the expense of long-term lifespan, and it works tirelessly to protect incumbency above all else.

The Culture of No is not native to government, but it thrives especially well in democratic governments and regulated bodies. But the Culture of No can thrive anywhere it’s not kept in check: your local non-profit, a small start-up, city hall, or a Fortune 10 business. At its best, the Culture of No provides friction for obviously good ideas to move forward and thrive. At its worst, it grinds at our ability to get things done.

So what can be done about the Culture of No? How do we get past it?

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Why your agency should consider a “procurement pilot”

rfpez screenshot

Pictured: RFP-EZ, a pilot project in federal IT procurement.

If you’re a follower of DOBT and our blog, you know that we’re a bit obsessed about government procurement – in fact, some of our most widely-shared posts have been on the subject. But when Clay and I first met in 2012 during our Presidential Innovation Fellowship, procurement wasn’t discussed outside traditional government circles, especially not by the “civic tech” or “civic hacking” community.

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Measuring Screendoor's ROI for Government Agencies

One of the great challenges of working in government today is the sheer inadequacy of the tools available to achieve an ambitious and ever growing set of policy challenges. At DOBT, we spend a lot of time thinking about to solve this problem, and how we can continue to measure and improve the return on investment (ROI) we deliver to project teams working to serve their constituents.

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Understanding the Culture of No

The following is a transcript of a Keynote address by DOBT Founder Clay Johnson to local, state, and federal officials of Mexico on February 20th, 2015.

I think there’s a bit of a false promise in the way we think about innovation in government. The current thinking is: “if we bring in private sector innovators, then they’ll fix the government with their whiz-bang ideas.”

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Why our free trials no longer have an expiration date

If you’re familiar with the Department of Better Technology, you know that something that sets us apart from other government-focused technology firms is that we build hosted platforms. That means there’s nothing to install, and that setting up a new agency or organization takes minutes, not days. This allows us to offer a completely free trial of our applications – something we think is a necessity when selling software. We want our customers to buy Screendoor because they’ve used and loved it, not because they looked at a carefully-crafted marketing page, or a salesperson promised it would change their life.

For the past year, these free trials would last for seven days. Enough time, we thought, for a potential user to set up a form in Screendoor, collect some responses, and show their colleagues what it can do. Even though this length of time is often seen in the startup world, we have realized that in our line of work, it is nowhere near enough time to really evaluate a product. Today we’re announcing that starting now, Screendoor (and our other apps) will come with a free trial that never expires.

Why the change? We want potential customers to be able to use Screendoor for a real-world project, and we realize that in government, these projects don’t always happen overnight. We’re well aware of how long the government purchasing process can take, and we don’t want to be in the position of restricting an agency’s access to our software just because we’re waiting for the puchasing department to deal with payment.

Our hope is with these extended free trials, we’ll be able to give a lot more folks a chance to really see how Screendoor can improve their agency’s communication, workflows, and efficiency. If you haven’t tried it yet, there’s no better time to sign up and see what it’s all about. If you already have an expired free trial, just get in touch and we’ll put you on our new “Free forever” plan.

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Making Government More Effective and Inclusive

I am delighted to join the Department of Better Technology! The vision for this company, developed while Clay and Adam served as Presidential Innovation Fellows in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is incredibly compelling:

The Department of Better Technology’s goal is to move government into the 21st century: to work in the guts of government, to fix problems via technology, and to improve the way that people interact with it. We think that no matter what size you want government to be, you want it to work well, be accountable, and spend your dollars wisely. We think modernizing technology is a way to achieve all those things.

Screendoor, DOBT’s flagship product, is a flexible tool that enables governments and non-profits to collect and manage data in a beautiful and intuitive way. USAID uses Screendoor to place hundreds of fellows in Graduate Research Innovation Fellowships, the City of Oakland uses it to run its Grants for the Arts program, and Propublica uses it to find sources for their news stories.

While I’m excited to expand our work with municipal and federal partners, I’m also excited about working with the international development community and using Screendoor to solve difficult global challenges. Over the last few years, I’ve worked in emerging and developing economies to help front-line teams use technology to more effectively deliver the services (health, water and education) that matter most to citizens. In each of these sectors, collecting accurate data at the community level – and making sense of these data at the district or national level – is a core challenge. Screendoor is the best tool for managing this process: from the creation of a form and the collection of data on a mobile device or tablet, to getting the full picture about what these data can tell us. Screendoor is backed by a robust API, which makes it easy to sync data with existing systems and interact with your data on a map.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to join Clay, Adam, and the team. DOBT is a for-profit company, but it’s backed by the Knight Foundation and we measure our success both by how well we do and by the extent to which we help make government – the only institution that serves all of us – more effective and inclusive.


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Creating an Unbelievable Citizen Experience, Part 3: Many hands make awesome work

This post is the third in our “Creating an Unbelievable Citizen Experience” series, highlighting the features and benefits of our flagship product, Screendoor.

If you’ve been following along with this mini-series, you’ve heard our pitch over and over again: the most drastic way you can improve the citizen experience is by making the necessary interactions with government quicker and easier, and that Screendoor is designed to accomplish just that. But did you know that in addition to saving time for your citizens, Screendoor can also help you and your staff save time and money?

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Creating an Unbelievable Citizen Experience, Part 2: Pick the best in 5 minutes or less

This post is the second in our “Creating an Unbelievable Citizen Experience” series, highlighting the features and benefits of our flagship product, Screendoor.

We’re on a mission to drastically improve citizen experience, but we’re taking it on from behind the scenes, not in social networks or discussion forums. You can “engage your audience” all day long, but if basic functionality is still clunky and your employees are still spending valuable time on cumbersome tasks, your citizens will remain less than impressed. So last week we talked about getting your forms online quickly and easily, and now we’ll show you how Screendoor can help you spend time wisely by smart sorting and easily evaluating your responses.

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Creating an Unbelievable Citizen Experience, Part 1: The 15 Minute Form

This post is the first in our “Creating an Unbelievable Citizen Experience” series, highlighting the features and benefits of our flagship product, Screendoor.

When agencies consider ways to improve user experience for citizens, their thoughts often turn to public engagement in the form of social media and other outreach strategies. While admirable, these communication efforts fail to address the more basic, everyday interactions that citizens have with their governments. Things like applying for licenses, permits, or positions usually involve an unavoidable form.

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OpenRFPs on National Day of Civic Hacking

National Day of Civic Hacking is this weekend, and we couldn’t be more excited to continue the great work that’s been done on OpenRFPs, our community-driven effort to write scrapers for government contracting opportunities. If you’d like to get involved, we’ve written up a current state-of-the-project here: https://gist.github.com/adamjacobbecker/005f3ed586964220c54d

Feel free to join us – either in-person in NYC, Seattle, or Los Angeles, or in our chatroom – and together, we can start to get this important data in the hands of the people.

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Why We Design for Bureaucrats First

What is it, exactly, that’s so frustrating about a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles? Is it the color of paint on the waiting room’s walls? Or their choice of pens for the written tests? Does your exasperation with the local DMV have anything to do with the place’s design or aesthetic?

I bet not. I bet your frustration doesn’t have to do with the quality of your experience at the DMV. Your chief complaint with the DMV is probably that you have to go there at all. The DMV could be as nice a five star hotel and we’d still find a reason to complain about it if we have to interrupt our day to go there. If people are compelled by law to take time away from their work and families, no amount of “designing a great customer experience” is going to keep frustration at bay.

The default assumption in the civic technology community is that people want to engage with government. This is an assumption that needs to be tested. I believe that most people want to engage with their government about as much as they want to engage with a hospital. Which is to say: we don’t want to be there, but when we have to go, we want everything to work efficiently and with a minimum of hassle.

At DOBT we build tools for bureaucrats, not for citizens. That’s why our first big product is Screendoor, which makes it easy for government to capture and process information. For most people, it’s not the voting booth or the town council meeting that defines their primary relationship with government; it’s the form. Screendoor makes that form, and all the processes behind it, a fantastic experience – but most importantly, a shorter and more manageable one. When the work of bureaucrats is streamlined, citizens benefit.

Now approaching its first birthday, Screendoor is being used in all kinds of ways, from revamping procurement practices to hiring innovation fellows to granting musicians permits to perform at their local farmers market. Screendoor completely eliminates cumbersome PDF forms and the complex and expensive computer systems that sit behind them.

The bulky, costly, and unreliable “enterprise” approach to so much government technology today is demonstrably failing its stakeholders, from the healthcare.gov debacle to the Pentagon’s pending $11 billion health care records catastrophe. Screendoor helps small towns and large federal agencies turn million dollar problems into thousand dollar problems. That’s the savings you get from bureaucrat-oriented technology built with modern tools and agile development.

If you’re thinking about new ways technology can help you engage with your constituents while saving money, a great starting place is your own office. How can bureaucrats work together towards the goal of providing a better service experience to citizens? Before focusing on your organization’s blog or social media presence, think about the online interaction that your citizens really want to have with your office: a clear, easy-to-complete form that gets their problem solved quickly.

With the right tools in the hands of bureaucrats, we believe that government can deliver great service – without the wait in line.

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Welcome 18F!

Earlier today, the General Services Administration launched 18F, a new digital office inside of the federal government. Judging from the make-up of the organization and their GitHub repos, they’re already off to a great start. These are talented people doing important work.

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OpenRFPs: Day 1

This past weekend, DOBT participated in Code Across 2014, a nationwide hackathon where community members and local governments come together to develop tools and applications that improve their communities. We’ve attended events like this before, but this weekend was special because we had just launched OpenRFPs, our community-based initiative to democratize RFP data across the country.

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OpenRFPs: Open RFP Data for All 50 States

Tomorrow at CodeAcross we’ll be launching our first community-based project, OpenRFPs. The goal is to liberate the data inside of every state RFP listing website in the country. We hope you’ll find your own state’s RFP site, and contribute a parser.

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The Reform Federal Procurement for Information Technology Act was Just Released

Today, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and Congressman Gerry Connolly released the Reform Federal Procurement for Information Technology Act. We think it’s an important second component to the already-through-the-House Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act.

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Let's Fix The Federal Lockout First

Ever since Barack Obama said that he wanted to “blow up how we procure for IT” there’s been a lot of talk about holistic, comprehensive solutions to the fix. Heck, we at the Department even have an seven chapter ebook called How To Fix Procurement.

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Bad Project Management Is Not The Problem. Competition Is.

The typical response from the government contracting incumbency is that the biggest issue holding back technical performance is poor project management – the current vendors are good and can do their jobs, but the program managers inside of government constantly derail their sophisticated approaches with changing expectations, political scheduling, and lack of knowledge. If we only had better people in government, the idea goes, the smart contractor – would be able to do our jobs well.

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So You Want to Fix Procurement

There's been a lot of talk about fixing IT procurement lately. And while most of it is focused on the federal level, large IT failures happen at the state and local level too. There's not a city or state government that we can yet point to that has a truly modern procurement environment.

Fixing IT procurement is going to take a lot of people and a lot of attention to get right. In that spirit, If you'd like to be involved with fixing procurement here are some questions to ask in your local community in order to understand how procurement is set up:

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Announcing Quick Consults

Today we're launching Quick Consults Whether you need to bring someone in to take a look at an RFP, figure out what's going on with some Ruby code, or work on that strategic plan, we're here to help. And fast.

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When Government Gets Tech Right Part I

Last week, I had an op-ed in the New York Times. The unfortunate headline (one that the Times came up with, but I consented to in a rush to get the op-ed out) was Why The Government Never Gets Tech Right. While I do agree that government rarely gets tech right, never is a dangerous word to use here, first because it's not true, and second because when government gets tech right, it's instructive and it's a bad idea to ignore where the success is for the sake of a clickable headline. Especially for the guy who wrote this book.

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How To Fix Healthcare.gov

Late last night, the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services finally communicated with the public and let us know their plans on fixing Healthcare.gov with a "tech surge". Their plan?

Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve HealthCare.gov.

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How Healthcare.gov Went Wrong

Here at DOBT we talk a lot about How To Fix Procurement, but you don't hear a lot about why things go wrong. The Healthcare.gov Fiasco is instructive in that it highlights every piece of our procurement process that's broken. How, with a half-trillion dollar a year spend, could something like this botch even happen? Here's how:

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The Healthcare.gov Fiasco

It's been a week since Healthcare.gov launched, and for anyone who has tried to register for new health insurance on the website, its online waiting room page is perhaps the most recognizable page on the site:

Healthcare.gov Waiting Room

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Weekend Reading

It was a full year ago that Adam, Jed, and I started as Presidential Innovation Fellows to make RFP-EZ: The software that ended up saving the government 30% on IT purchases. It was a remarkable journey that not only ended up in a successful shipment of software, but also a lot of lessons learned.

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Showing Adopta some love

A little over a month ago, we launched Adopta, our version of Code for America's Adopt-a-Hydrant that let anyone set up their own Adopt-a-Anything website. While our original goal was just to see if there would any interest in such an app, we quickly realized that more than just making the app widely available, it was also our duty to see what we could do to improve it.

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Recommendations to improve large IT procurements

Earlier this year, California Governor Jerry Brown appointed DOBT founder and CEO Clay Johnson to the state's Task Force on Reengineering IT Procurement for Success, which was created to "identify how it can (1) hire the right vendors (2) at the best value, and (3) hold them accountable for their performance."

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Announcing Adopta - SaaS-ifying government software

A while back, before Clay and I had even conceived of DOBT, I tweeted:

Someone needs to create the 37signals of government software.

If you’re familiar with 37signals, you know that they’re behind Basecamp, Campfire, Highrise, and a bunch of other highly-regarded web applications. None of these apps are particular unique – there’s probably at least 10,000 other project management tools out there – but users love these apps because:

  1. They do one thing and do it well
  2. They start out free, and the price scales with the size of your organization
  3. They’re Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), so there’s nothing to install and they’re never out of date.

Our open government community has made some pretty some pretty big strides in the past decade. A lot of the cutting-edge apps and platforms that governments are using are open-source, so anyone can grab the code and deploy an instance for their city. But what happens when someone wants to use these applications, but doesn’t have the technical know-how to take the code, customize it, and host it themselves?

That’s why today we’re launching Adopta, a SaaS version of Code for America’s most-redeployed application, Adopt-a-Hydrant.

adopta screenshot

Adopt a Hydrant is one of CfA’s biggest successes. It was originally developed for the City of Boston in 2011, but the community quickly realized that it had applications beyond just adopting fire hydrants. In 2012, Honolulu launched “Adopt a Siren”, an application that allows citizens to take responsibility for tsunami sirens by checking to ensure their functionality and reporting the status to the City.

Today, Adopta empowers anyone, regardless of coding skills and technology know-how, to create their very own Adopt a Hydrant for their community. Every aspect of the site is customizable – so no matter if you want to adopt hydrants, storm drains, or banana stands, you’ll be able to tweak the website copy and images to fit.

So far this has only been a small side-project of ours, but we’re excited to test the waters and see where we can go with this SaaS-for-government model. If it piques your interest, give us a hand and help test out Adopta!

Thanks to Measured Voice

One big problem we have in getting government to use new technology is the Terms of Service problem. See, unlike you and me, government employees can’t just “click through” a legally binding contract without reading it. Instead, if you want to buy something, you’ve got to have your counsel read through the Terms, and often, negotiate with the service providing the terms.

That’s why for a lot of small businesses, it’s good to have some kind of standardized terms. Eventually, we want to get to the point where Counsel says “oh, I’ve seen these terms before. It’s fine.”

We love MeasuredVoice – they’re out there selling, working on solving a hard problem (helping government listen better) and, like us, working on stuff that matters. So when we noticed that they had developed their own Terms with GSA, we asked if we could steal them. And they oblidged. They even put it up on github.

So now we’ve got something we can work with – a template, a place to start. Let’s work together to craft a terms document that works for everybody, so we can focus on what we do best – making great software.

Thanks MeasuredVoice!

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An Open Government Story

Imagine you’re an expert carpenter. And, solely out of altruism, you spend six weekends a year volunteering to build houses for Habitat for Humanity. You wake up early on a Saturday morning, walk away from your family, and spend two full days putting up a house for the greater good. Habitat’s not paying you in anything but the lunch and snacks they bring you, but its fulfilling – you’re giving back.

You get so good at leading teams to build houses you get a call from Jimmy Carter. Carter calls you up and invites you to Habitat for Humanity’s headquarters for lunch to thank you for your hard work.

But driving up to Habitat’s headquarters, things seem out of whack. You, as a builder can take one look at it, and understand that the place is about to fall apart. Structural beams are in the wrong place. There are two toilets in every stall in the bathroom. The water in the building is pumped into a large pool at the top of the building, and then trickles down to where it needs to go, and the pool is held up by very narrow wood beams. And the furnace and water heater are insulated with dry pine straw.

You don’t even want to go into the building, but it’s to meet president Carter, so you decide to essentially risk your life and get in the elevator and hit the button to go to the top floor. And of course even though you’re the only passenger on the elevator, the car stops at every floor on its way up to the top.

By the time you get to Carter’s office you’re terrified. Now this is an organization you’ve given a lot to, and that you care a lot about. You certainly don’t want the building to fall apart. You’ve got to say something, or at least figure out how an organization with so much access to excellent carpenters, plumbers, and electricians, could end up with such a terrible, dangerous building.

You sit and say to the former president, “Thanks for having me here for lunch. This building is something else, isn’t it?”

President Carter responds, seemingly well aware that his building is a disaster: ”It’s amazing, isn’t it? Have you ever seen a more poorly designed building?

“No, no Mr. President, I haven’t. It’s really dangerous – it’s not only aesthetically bad, it’s also structurally unsound.”

“Oh, I know. Our contractors told us it was. They’re fixing it now, thankfully. After they’re done fixing the insides, hopefully we’ll have enough budget to upgrade the aesthetics, too.”

“That’s a relief, Mr. president. Who built this thing? I hope they’re not building any houses.”

“Well, we bid this out and the only people who bid on this was Master Builders, Incorporated or MBI.” He says.

“I had no idea MBI still built buildings. Who is cleaning up their mess?” you ask.

“Well, MBI is on the hook to fix it too. The good news is, they’ve put 50 new people on the project. Including 45 new project managers.”

“Mr. President, I’m sorry, but you really should switch vendors. I wouldn’t trust the people who built this building to clean it up.” you say.

“Well, it was a 500 Million dollar project and there really aren’t that many builders out there that can qualify for a project of this size and scope. So we have to use them. They’re the only ones that have a track record of doing half-billion dollar projects.” he says.

“500 million dollars? For this office? How many people do you have in here, 60?”

“It has room for 60, but 30 of our people work in remote offices – out in the field building houses.”

“Mr. president,” you say, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but it’d probably take the crew I had this weekend to build a habitat house about 500k to build an office building like this. Half a billion dollars more than you need to build a town, not an office building.”

He raises an eyebrow: “I think there’s a lot more that goes into building a building of this size than one of the residential buildings our volunteers build. We have to be compliant with many more building codes.”

“Like what?” you ask.

“For instance, we need to be accessible to people with disabilities. This means we need ramps to our doors, urinals that are installed a bit lower, and braille on our elevator buttons. And we need to control access to the building. Stuff like that” he says.

“Mr. President – that’s generally cosmetic stuff – it shouldn’t increase the cost and scope of your building by 1,000x. And if you build your building with standards, most of that stuff is already done for you. Let me and a team come in here and fix this. We’ll do it for a tenth of the cost, and you can take the money you were planning to spend on your building, and spend it on building more houses and putting more people in them.”

“Really? I have to confess I don’t know much about actually building houses these days. I’m going to look into this. But for now, let’s just enjoy our lunch.”

You find president Carter charming, and he takes a liking to you too. At the end he gives you his card and says, “we really appreciate your help. And if you know how we can do anything better, you call me directly and let’s talk about it.”

You finish up your lunch with president Carter and get out of the building as soon as you can. Then on your way home, you drive past a home that you built for Habitat. It’s empty. By the looks of it, nobody’s been on the lot since the press event that happened right after it was built. You decide to take a look around at the other houses you’ve helped build. They all seem to be in some stage of disrepair and neglect.

By the time you get home, you’re outraged. You decide to sleep it off, but the neglected houses keep you up. By 9am, you find yourself with your phone in your hand dialing president Carter.”

“Hey there! Good to hear from you! I’ve been asking around about our building issue. It seems like MBI is the only builder that’s managed to go through our vendor qualification program, and thus they’re the only ones qualified to do the building. But if you went through the process, you could probably bid on the project and compete against them in the open market for the next round of work.”

“How long does that process take?”

“To register? I don’t know. Shouldn’t take that long, should it?”

“I guess not,” you say, “but Mr. President, I have a more pressing question – why is it that all the houses I helped to build are all vacant and neglected?”

“Ah, yes that’s really unfortunate. But the problem is, we don’t have the budget to hire the people needed to keep the property maintained and to put them in houses.”

“But… you’re spending a half billion dollars on your office building. Do you know how many people you could put in houses with that money?”

Carter chuckles. “Wow, that would be a lot, huh? Hey – I’ve got to run to a fundraiser. But it’s good talking to you. I’ll introduce you to our procurement people about getting registered as a vendor for us.”

You’re frustrated, but think you can solve the problem. You’ll just form a company with your friends from Habitat to get that building’s cost down so that money can get freed up, and then people can get in those houses. A few days later, you get a terse email from Habitat for Humanity’s procurement division:

“Dear Ms. or Mr. Smith,

Please see the attached documentation for signing up to be a supplier for Habitat for Humanity. Please note that your business must meet the minimum requirements in order to bid on our projects.”

Out of the 14 attachments on the email, you manage to find the document (titled 2012_AU776-REQS.PDF) describing the requirements. It says:

All Vendors must be at least 2 years old. Vendors for projects that cost more than 150,000 must have a one billion dollar liability insurance policy.

Well, so much for that. You won’t even be eligible to bid on the project for another two years. And there’s no way you’ll get an insurance policy like that. Only huge mega corporations have insurance policies like that. You call president Carter.

“Hey, it’s good to hear from you. You get connected with our procurement people?”

“Yeah, I did. It’s unfortunate though, because they say that I have to be two years old and have a huge insurance policy in order to even get a seat at the table to help you out. So, I guess that’s that.”

“Well, why don’t you partner up with an existing company and just subcontract through them. I think our procurement people have encouraged a mentoring program for this.”

You have to admit, you hadn’t thought of that. So you call up the procurement people at Habitat. They’re very accommodating and they give you a list of companies who say they’ll partner up with smaller contractors to “learn the trade.”

You set up meetings with MBI’s biggest competitors: Dynamic General Builders, Whiskey Elon Jackson, and Whiterock. And when you meet with them it’s clear that they don’t know anything about building houses. Not a single one of them uses termite treated wood, for instance. They all connect copper pipes to iron ones, not understanding that over time, that will cause corrosion and the pipes will have to be replaced. And when you mention these issues, they’re condescending about it: “Listen,” they say, “you may know a lot about building homes – but you have no idea how to build enterprise-grade buildings. You have to do things this way. Work with us and you’ll learn this in time.”

You just can’t bring yourself to do it. 99% of all new houses today use PVC piping and termite treated wood for damn good reasons, and you’re not going to go back and use tools and techniques from 50 years ago.

Then you realize it: this is, of course, the problem. This is the reason why the building costs a half-billion dollars in the first place. Habitat is trying to build a modern building using the tools from 50 years ago. It’d be like trying to buy a car with 300 horsepower by buying 300 actual horses and trying to get them to all go at the same time. Horses cost $5,000 each.

Defeated, you head home. The phone rings, and it’s president Carter.

“Hey there – I was calling to see if you’d lead a build-a-thon this weekend to put up a house in your neighborhood. Homelessness is way up because of the economy, but if we work together, we can give people a helping hand up.”

You get sick to your stomach. “Mr. president, I’d be happy to help, but I can’t very well build houses for you for free while you’re paying people a half billion dollars to build yourself an office. And I know you don’t have the budget to actually maintain and get people in the house.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do to change your mind?”

“Yes. You can make it so that your own volunteers who’ve built these houses can come in and fix yours. And that starts with changing who can compete for your contracts,” you say.

“Gosh, I’d really love to do that, but to be honest with you I really don’t want to pick a political battle with our procurement people. It’s an issue that doesn’t win me a lot of support with my board. They’re much more concerned with getting new homes up or meeting fundraising numbers,” he says.

“So you don’t think that spending a half billion dollars on your office building is a high priority problem?” You say, steaming.

“Well, I do. But I don’t think my board is going to let me do anything about it.”

“I think they’d be really concerned about it. Who is on your board?

“Well, we have a ‘representational board’” he says, proudly. “80% of the board votes belong to our members – people who donate under $250, and people who volunteer. Then we have 20% of the board represented by our large corporate sponsors: people who have given more than $50,000.”

“Really? Do those people usually vote on stuff?” You ask

“No, most are just happy donating. It’s the corporate sponsors who normally care about our operations.” he says.

“And who are they?” you ask.

MBI, Whiskey, Dynamic General, Whiterock, you know them.” He says.

You want to give up. But you think about it, and for some reason, you just can’t.

“Mr. President,” you say, “we’ve got to fix this procurement problem. And if it’s not an issue for you now, I’ve got to make it an issue. But for now, no. I can’t lead the build-a-thon this weekend. I’ve got a bigger problem to solve than building houses on the cheap.”

“Okay!” he says. “Well, hope to hear from you soon then!”

You grin and say ”You bet!

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How To Fix Procurement 7: Standardized Terms for Companies That Want Them

What we’ve discussed so far are projects that involve bidding and sales – largely customizable IT integrations that come from professional services consultancies. But that’s not all that government buys, and it’s certainly not the place where the most innovation happens online.

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How Would You Like To Reduce Your Government's IT Costs by 30%?

Today, the White House released the results from our pilot project through the Presidential Innovation Fellowship program. Here’s the most important part:

A Most Impressive Bar Chart

We’re the blue bar. The traditional methods of bidding are the red bar. These are the kinds of results you get when you open up the door for innovators to work with government. The federal government got over 200 new vendors, and achieved an average savings of over 30%.

We’re looking for 5 cities to help duplicate these kind of results. Work for government? Want to start saving 30% on your IT projects? Sign up for our pilot..

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How To Fix Procurement 6: Use Agile Policymaking

One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein:

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we used to create them.

In the case of crafting a 21st century procurement practice, it’s worth taking that to heart. Anyone that’s ever worked at any government agency – local, state or federal – and tried to do anything “innovative” ends up frustrated with procurement and probably ends up with lots of ideas about how to fix things.

And our natural instinct is to gather a commission of those frustrated people together and think up ideas for change. Then draft these ideas into a recommendations document. Perhaps we sign some petitions and organize a bunch of people together in order to send those recommendations to policy makers, who then may implement the policy changes. And some policies change. This is often how policymaking works.

Does this sound crazy to anyone else?

It’s like waterfall software development, but without any of the quality checks. We imagine what kind of policies might work and then implement them, never investigating whether or not those policies created the desired outcomes we were seeking.

As we move forward in figuring out what to do with procurement, I’d like to suggest that we avoid this model for crafting new policy and techniques. That is the level of thinking that created our significant procurement problems. Instead of using the waterfall technique of policymaking that got us into this mess, let’s be agile policy scientists and get us out.

That’s the battle plan for Procure.io:

  1. Find governmental bodies that are willing to participate in a test.
  2. Craft a low-risk test for that body.
  3. Publish the results of that test, and if the results are successful, use the results to justify expansion of the test, or to inform future policymaking.
  4. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The implications of working this way are significant because it allows for controlled failure. It makes it so you don’t need consensus of the whole acquisition community from the get-go: the seats at the table only expand when the scope of the test expands. And it means we don’t have to come up with all the answers before we affect change. We can acknowledge that we don’t know everything, and we’ll see what happens. If what happens turns out to be good, let’s implement it. If it doesn’t, we won’t.

We’re not going to solve IT procurement problems by sitting around the table drafting documents and signing petitions. We’re going to solve them by conducting tests, measuring outcomes, and implementing change based on the results.

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How To Fix Procurement 5: It's Not About Procurement

It’s easy to get distracted with the nuts and bolts of procurement. To look at the system, so broken and inefficient, and want to fix it for its own sake. But imagine a politician – say, a candidate for mayor – running for office. What do you think the chances are that our candidate will win if she runs on a platform of procurement reform?

While she’ll certainly win the allegiance of this blog and its (literally) dozens of readers, I’m not sure we’re going to see any mayoral candidates giving speeches about increasing simple acquisition thresholds, reforming set-aside programs so that they actually work the way they’re intended to, or “creating a 21st century acquisition workforce”.1 It’s farcical.

Nobody buys a house based on the quality of its plumbing and wiring, and nobody will elect a government based on the quality of its procurement strategy. The next step in fixing procurement is understanding that fixing procurement isn’t about procurement. It’s about the things that come with it. The opportunities that get created when it does get fixed.

First and foremost, fixing procurement is about local economic development: 21st century procurement processes create jobs. The first city to implement the changes we’ve outlined in this blog is in for a massive boom. Instead of jobs going to multinational contractors, it’ll be able to work with local designers, developers and other innovators within its own community.

Those local shops will be able to create jobs, innovate further, and improve quality of life of the city’s residents. Service delivery will work better. Constituent communications (both input and output) will work better. Imagine never having to wait in line at the DMV again. Or using your smartphone to grant yourself entry to mass transit. Or knowing what the status is of that hole in the sidewalk outside of your house. Or being able to attend a government zoning hearing via your computer or phone?

Those things aren’t just conveniences, they’re things that make people want to live there. All of these things exist in government today, but they’re incredibly hard for government to pull off because they’re expensive and there aren’t a lot of businesses that can both do the technical work to do it. Fixing procurement means that these things can happen easily and in a way that is affordable to the taxpayer.

But when you talk to government about “procurement reform” they don’t see these things. They see months of meetings with contracting officers. They see huge, intra-personnel political battles. They see committees and round tables and inertia. They see an unwinnable fight. And to local citizens? You have never seen eyes glaze over faster than when you say the word “procurement” when you’re trying to inspire people to take action.

Procurement reform is a huge opportunity, and the first government to enable the innovators in its own backyard to easily work with the city is bound to have a boom of jobs and convenience. But we, the champions of reform, must be about the jobs and convenience, not about the reform itself. It’s not about the reforms, its about the outcomes.

  1. Discussed in depth in this GAO Report

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The Most Interesting Part of the President's New Open Data Policy

Open Government-land is buzzing about an executive order outlining a new Open Data policy. Here’s my favorite part:

(b) Within 90 days of the issuance of the Open Data Policy, the Administrator for Federal Procurement Policy, Controller of the Office of Federal Financial Management, CIO, and Administrator of OIRA shall work with the Chief Acquisition Officers Council, Chief Financial Officers Council, Chief Information Officers Council, and Federal Records Council to identify and initiate implementation of measures to support the integration of the Open Data Policy requirements into Federal acquisition and grant-making processes. Such efforts may include developing sample requirements language, grant and contract language, and workforce tools for agency acquisition, grant, and information management and technology professionals.

(Emphasis Mine)

Well would you look at that. Maybe the federal government wants to create its own Open RFP Library. Or maybe it’s foreshadowing to an IT overhaul executive order that couples itself with this?

The whole memo is great. Here’s hoping that there’s a way to pay for it. I suspect that most of the things that the White House is asking agencies to do can be done in individual increments, for less than $150,000 – and that they could use RFP-EZ to open the door to a wide swath of new, nimble technology companies to do this work.

What an opportunity.

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How To Fix Procurement 4: Change Contracting Officer Culture

So far in the series we’ve tackled three of the biggest problems in large enterprise procurements: getting the right people at the table, doing that efficiently, and asking them the right things. The fourth big problem? Judgment, and knowing what the best value is. We’re going to cover that today.

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How To Fix Procurement 3: Ask for the Right Stuff

So far we’ve talked about two ways to decrease government’s IT costs: streamlining the process that agencies use to vet and certify new businesses, and leveraging APIs to make it easier to interface with government for those registrations. These two things are important because it increases competition and thus increases quality and decreases cost. But good information technology at a low price isn’t all we’re after. We also want government to pick the right information technology for the job.

An important lesson If you’re a programmer is to take a look at Recovery.gov, which cost $18 million dollars. But why did it cost $18 million dollars? For the answer to that, let’s take a look at the RFP and the somewhat-redacted winning technical proposal written in response. If you’re a technologist, you might come to the same conclusion I did: Government is paying a reasonable amount of money for what it’s asking. The problem is that it’s asking for the wrong thing. XML Firewalls? Data-cubing services? Seriously?

So how do you fix it? One might say: “hire a consultant to look at the RFPs, and she’ll tell you what you do and don’t need.” But government already has this – both in Technical Representative Programs (COTRs) and in open requests for comments in the procurement process. Unfortunately, each has its problems; COTRs tend to work on COTRing, not on remaining up to date on technology and its costs, and in an open request for information, the people who have the best input are also the people who can do the best job. This doesn’t sound like a problem, but often times you cannot bring someone in to help steer what kind of work to do, and then do the actual work.

The long-term fix for these problems is to partially separate the RFP process from the procurement process. This helps on three fronts:

  • It helps get feedback from outside the context of a particular procurement. Instead of commenting on an RFP for “this” website, we can comment on an RFP for “a” website.

  • It promotes reuse. RFP content gets written over and over again, without tracking any success or results. This adds expense to the project since a), you don’t know if what you’re asking for is the right thing, and b), you’re doing work that’s repetitive.

  • It improves language. By soliciting feedback from a wider community, you stop the atrocious act of using phrases like “Information Distribution and Discovery Platform”. By calling them “websites”, you’ll be using the same language that’s used by folks who do the work regularly.

One way to solve these issues is by creating an Open RFP Library. It’s something we hope to work on here at the Department, and it’s something that others (like Beth Noveck’s WorldBank/NYU Wagner collaboration on Innovative Procurement) are working on too. Imagine an open library for RFPs where a government agency can contribute their documents and share them with other agencies of all kinds, across different levels of government. And where the vendor community, the open government community, and other governments can comment on them and make them better. Imagine if people could ballpark what each RFP should cost, and imagine if you could circle back with them after the job was done to see how the work turned out.

While it would be difficult to show returns in the short term, this is a long-term play that reduces cost by making the requests better and faster. In other words: knowing what to ask for is just as important as asking the right people.

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How To Fix Procurement 2: Up The API Game

We’re dedicating this week to talking about how to fix procurement. Yesterday we discussed where to start in procurement reform – fixing the registration process for businesses – and today we’re going to provide an example of one way to fix it: by upping the government’s API game.

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How To Fix Procurement 1: Fix Registration

The way government purchases information technology is profoundly broken – leading to federal websites and information technology systems to sometimes cost as much as an entire scientific initiative to map the human brain. And it’s easy to complain about how much these websites cost, or about how their high prices and lengthy procurement processes don’t impact quality or user experience, but it’s not so easy to be thoughtful about how fix it. So this week, we thought we’d talk specifically about how to fix the procurement process.

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What Is The Future Of Open Government?

A couple weeks ago, President Obama announced a new research initiative to map the human brain – making a significant investment of $100 Million Dollars to prevent, treat and cure brain injuries.

This is a website called Sam.gov. It launched late last year, and it’s the central hub responsible for all the databases behind government contracting. The GAO estimates that this website will cost the taxpayer $181 Million dollars.

I’d like to say that this is just a one-off anomaly, but government regularly pays millions of dollars for websites.

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