Month: December 2014

GAO: State, local governments should cut expenditures by 18 percent

State and Local Simulated Operating Balance Measure, as a Percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Source: GAO)

State and Local Simulated Operating Balance Measure, as a Percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Source: GAO)

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released its 2014 state and local fiscal outlook model that indicates state and local government need to cut current expenditures by 18 percent to achieve fiscal balance over the next 50 years.

The outlook indicates an increase in revenues from income sales taxes from 2009 to 2014, however, a decline of one percent in receipts from the second quarter of 2013 to the second quarter of 2014. Much of the cause for expenditures is related to rising healthcare costs.

Key excerpt from the GAO podcast transcript:

In its simplest form, the state and local fiscal outlook looks at the revenues, or the receipts, coming in to all state and local governments compared to the expenditures going out for these governments. The difference between receipts and expenditures is what we refer to as the operating balance of state and local sector as a whole. In other words, the simple version of the model is to think of a math problem where expenditures are subtracted from receipts, and the difference is the operating balance. The model then simulates the state and local sectors ability to cover expenditures with receipts. One way of using these data to illustrate the long-term outlook for the state and local government sector is through a measure we refer to as the fiscal gap. The fiscal gap is an estimate of the action that would be needed today and then maintained for each year going forward to achieve fiscal balance during the next 50 years from 2014 to 2063. Closing this gap would require state and local governments to make policy changes to assure that receipts are at least equal to expenditures. So, we calculated that closing the fiscal gap would require action to be taken today and then maintained for each year going forward, roughly equivalent to an 18% reduction in state and local government current expenditures. Closing the gap through revenue increases would require action of a similar magnitude through increases in state and local tax revenues. More likely, closing the fiscal gap would require some combination of revenue increases and expenditure reductions.

To compile its projections, GAO uses data from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census Bureau, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Congressional Budget Office, Office of Tax Analysis and Social Security Administration.

GAO has published the outlook model since 2007.


GAO Director of Strategic Issues Michelle Sager discusses the report in an agency podcast (transcript):

Read the full report (.pdf).

Philadelphia launches alpha city website


Philadelphia has launched an alpha version of a new

The new site, located at, is powered by WordPress with a custom theme that hopefully the city will open source at some point in the future.

To me, the site is perfect as is. It completely abandons outdated web features, such as the homepage carousel, gratuitous mayoral photo or city skyline, heavy graphics and department-centered focus on information presentation. The only change I’d recommend is going with standard casing (and not all-caps). In general, I love that the style is flat, light-weight, text-based, and works perfectly on all devices, much like what we designed for GovPress.

The text-based approach with limited, page-appropriate content and prominent search on each page shows restraint that we typically don’t see in government websites.

If WordPress is replacing the technology powering the current site (.asp), that’s another big win for the city.

Kudos to Philadelphia for winning on both the technology and design fronts with this.

Take a look at the site and share your feedback.

An investment in the future of government technology

Full disclosure: I have a financial arrangement with the companies discussed in this post.

For the past 15 years, I’ve spent much of my professional life working with and in startups. It’s an environment I love. You have complete control over your destiny, and you win by blending the perfect amalgam of people, design, technology, strategy and execution all into one mission.

And, you hustle. You hustle hard, because you’re driven by a common mission and have the unified audacity to try and make it work.

Many, many times — more often than not — it doesn’t work. Startups are like restaurants. They fail frequently and not in the “fail forward” sense of the phrase. But, when they succeed and move to the next level — rapid customer or revenue growth, acquisition or initial public offering — the sense of entrepreneurial accomplishment and camaraderie is special.

With the announcement of GovDelivery’s acquisition of NuCivic, it feels much like that. I’ve been lucky enough to be privy to the inside operations and success of three government technology-focused startups, and this has been the most rewarding — the leadership, team, mission and the outcome.

For me personally, it’s been an honor to have worked closely with NuCivic CEO and co-founder Andrew Hoppin, and the entire NuCivic team.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few hours talking one-on-one with GovDelivery CEO Scott Burns about the possibility of an acquisition, what it would mean for NuCivic and learn more about his business philosophy and him as a leader and person. After I left our meeting, it was clear this was the right move for both Scott and Andrew (and Andrew’s co-founder Sheldon Rampton), and the GovDelivery and NuCivic teams.

The GovDelivery-NuCivic acquisition represents a growing trend towards open source options in government that will soon be the norm. It’s a strong sign that civic technology sustainability is within the community’s reach. We see it in this instance, we see other companies in the industry following suit, and we’ll see it more and more, especially as innovators inside government continue to drive demand to open solutions that are best for the taxpayer and the citizen.

As Scott wrote, “We are glad to have them on board and know that they share our passion for serving government clients and the public.”

That passion, to build software that fully empowers government, is the glue that will continue to drive the NuCivic team.

There’s still a ton of heavy-lifting to make NuCivic the success envisioned, but this new phase is an inspiration for those of you who believe that the future of government technology, and delivery, is open.

For more on the acquisition and the future of NuCivic, see Andrew’s post here, Scott’s here, and the official press release here.

City icons and Vocativ’s livability index

Vocativ 'Livability Index'

Image: Vocativ

Vocativ published its 2014 Livability Index of the 35 best cities for people 35 and under, and the best part of it is the montage of city icons they created for the piece.

I’m a big fan of cities creating a brand strategy and modern, friendly logos, much like Colorado did, and Vocativ did a great job highlighting the iconography of the featured cities.

My favorites are Reno, Kansas City and, of course, San Francisco.

What are yours?

Taking the innovation office government-wide

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

There’s a great Code for America Summit talk from Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Tim Wisniewski on what they’re doing to build a city-wide culture of innovation, including a physical open space office where anyone can work, a $100,000 internal innovation fund and tapping into external talent.

What I like about the office space idea is that it begins to create the sense of fluidity and mobility that’s important in serendipitous encounters that help generate new ideas and extend community beyond just one particular office. Physical space is an important aspect of innovation (as is attire) and, hopefully, these types of “labs” inspire a trend towards open office design within government.

There’s a significant amount of focus from the innovation crowd on attracting outside talent, but it’s important to keep in mind that there are extremely bright and gregarious people working on the inside that aren’t acknowledged as such or being given the freedom to innovate. Given that they are more attuned and accustomed to the inner workings of government, and less likely to become easily disenchanted, they are a much better resource to tap into. Often we hear that if you really want to change government, you need to work in it. While I disagree with that sentiment, I think it’s extremely important to maintain an internal culture of innovation, and we’re still seeing a low retention rate of fellows, tapped externally, deciding to work for government.

The other aspect of government innovation initiatives concerns the process of communicating their value. The biggest value and best way to communicate the importance of an innovation initiative is through the process. Government innovation efforts continue to fail on the open knowledge front and often rely on a push approach that entails the press office, press releases and final product launch-type blog posts. Government leaders should really get into the practice of publicly chronicling what they’re doing, what they’ve done, and what they learned that will help them do better.

Much of the sharing on these efforts is around code dumped into a repo, but open knowledge and insight into process is the best visibility into public innovation that citizens could ask for.

As Tim says in response to an audience member’s question on the subject:

“Most importantly, we could do some really great things here, but if we don’t get the word out about it enough, people are just going to remember the money we spent.”

More of my thoughts on government innovation here, but I really enjoyed Tim’s presentation and the follow-up Q&A and wanted to share.

Watch Tim’s talk:

What if mayors ruled the world?

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (Photo: Eric Garcetti)

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (Photo: Eric Garcetti)

Freakonomics Radio has a great episode on the dynamics of mayors and their ability (compared to governors and presidents) to directly and immediately impact the lives of citizens, primarily because they deal with tactical issues with relatively less political obstacles.

The segment, “If Mayors Ruled the World,” features mayors Eric Garcetti (Los Angeles), Toni Harp (New Haven), Richard Berry (Albuquerque) and Marty Walsh (Boston), and riffs off a new book by the same name, “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities” by Benjamin Barber.

One interesting anecdote is that a significant number of mayors start out as legislators, and very few (only three) have gone on to become presidents, the theory being that the mindset for a successful national political campaign takes bigger-picture vision, whereas being the executive of a city is entails mostly operations, tactical thinking and execution.

Related excerpt:

DUBNER: You’d think that the traits make someone successful as a mayor would be incredibly valuable, however, at a state or federal level. Being an executive getting things done, understanding that you are going to tick off certain constituencies in order to serve the greater good. And yet, it seems like when we look at this moment in time at least in the U.S. at state and federal governance we see on one hand people who love to shout at their enemies across the aisle, but it’s not like they are shouting in service of great accomplishment, are they? It seems like if you had to measure what’s getting done on a daily basis I’d think that most mayors are getting a whole lot more done than most governors and federal officials, yeah?

SMITH: Yeah, but this is probably another reason why mayors, particularly in New York City, haven’t gone on to higher office historically, is that the conditions that allow them to be autocratic here don’t exist at the national level. It is very much more at the national level about building some, you hope, sense of compromise. You know you’ve got to work with the Senate and the House in a way that doesn’t exist at the local level. And so to Obama’s frustration, obviously, he’d like to operate more like a mayor, more sort of unilaterally. And so maybe that’s the quality that does not transfer very well.


The Freakonomics of ‘Government Employees Gone Wild’

I’ve been on a podcast kick lately and stumbled on an old Freakonomics Radio episode highlighting the U.S. Department of Defense ethics guide, “The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure.”

Freakonomics interviews the publication’s editor, Jeff Green, senior attorney in DOD’s Standards of Conduct office, and its founding editor, Steve Epstein, who is now Boeing Company ethics and compliance chief counsel.

The episode, “Government Employees Gone Wild,” aired in July 2013, but it’s a refreshing approach at how DOD culls news stories, press releases and inspector general reports to highlight how federal employees cross ethical lines in the most egregious and sometimes humorous ways.

Interview excerpt:

DUBNER: Do either of you ever worry that this “Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure” could be read not so much as a set of cautionary tales but instead as a handbook for, oh there’s something I hadn’t thought of doing, there’s a way to wrangle a little extra money or influence of whatnot?

EPSTEIN: Well it’s funny, it’s a good point you raise there. I don’t see that because in most of these cases you’re seeing people who made very poor judgment calls. And they weren’t very successful in a criminal manner. So it would hardly be a handbook for how to be a successful criminal. As a matter of fact it’s more of a handbook of how to be an unsuccessful criminal.

DUBNER: The lessons of the “Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure” are pretty straightforward – and helpful whether you work in government or not. Don’t steal stuff from your office and sell it at home in a yard sale. Don’t spend all day in a bar if you’re supposed to be working. Don’t pay a kickback with hookers. And if you are going to do any of these things, don’t lie about it and then pretend you’re dead. That just won’t work. Now it’s impossible to say how successful the Encyclopedia has been, if at all, in preventing ethical failures. One thing it has going for it is that it tells stories. It doesn’t dwell on the rule that gets broken; it tells us who does what, to whom, and how, and sometimes why. Nobody wants to read a set of rules. But all of us like a good story – and we’ll remember it, too.