Month: August 2015

California launches innovation contests to improve government operations

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

The state of California has launched a $25K Find a New Way innovation contest that gives residents a chance “to identify areas of improvement within the state government and share their untapped expertise to create solutions.”

Participating agencies include the Departments of General Services, Transportation and Alcoholic Beverage Control, and each will award up to $25,000 in prizes.

The impetus for the initiative is Assemblyman Mike Gatto’s Assembly Bill 2138 that created three innovation contests aimed at “eliminating or reducing state expenditures or improving operations, or for making exceptional contributions to the efficiency, economy, or other improvement in the operations of state government.”

Of particular interest is the DGS Green Gov Challenge, where participants will leverage open data to help improve government sustainability practices. The contest includes a Sacramento-based hackathon October 24-25 and coincides with a pilot launch of the state’s open data portal, led by California Government Operations Agency.

Learn more about the Green Gov Challenge and pre-register for the event.

7 books for better digital government

7 books for better digital government

Photo: Luke Fretwell

Continuing on my book cleaning spree, I wanted to highlight a few web product design and development books I’m getting rid of that are helpful for anyone focused on providing government digital services. Share your suggestions on our Facebook page.

Civic User Testing Group Book
Daniel X. O’Neil
This small (free) book from Smart Chicago Collaborative’s Daniel X. O’Neil highlights how government and civic groups can implement user testing into their projects. OpenOakland has re-purposed this in the work they’re are doing.

Mobile First
Luke Wroblewski
Gone are the days of a separate mobile-friendly or app version of your website. If you’re not familiar with why this is important and/or how to start thinking about mobile-centered government digital products, this is the book that will get you up to speed.

Responsive Web Design
Ethan Marcotte
Marcotte is the godfather of responsive web design, which is the foundational principle of mobile-friendly design. Great introduction into what RWD is and how to get started. Perfect companion to “Mobile First.”

Product Design for the Web: Principles of Designing and Releasing Web Products
Randy J. Hunt
Comprehensive overview of how to execute web product delivery. Great resource for getting all aspects of the development team (including the C-suite) on the same page.

Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience
Jeff Gothelf, Josh Seiden
As development becomes more agile, so has prototyping the experience. This helps get designers in a frame of mind they may not be accustomed to, but once applied, will make them more integral and excited about applying design principles in today’s development environment.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
Nir Eyal
For those building web products, Eyal walks the reader through the four phases of “The Hook Model” (Trigger, Action, Variable Reward, Investment) and how to create products that become “habit for good.” While this may not apply to a large number of government-focused services, the methodology is extremely helpful and provides a design mindset important to all projects

Design for Hackers: Reverse Engineering Beauty
David Kadavy
More granular and geared towards developers who can (and should) bake in great design practices even at the prototyping phase.

What design/development books do you recommend for building better digital government services? Share on our Facebook page.

Keep plugging away



BallotPath founder Jim Cupples sent me a follow-up note (see below), and it hits home two important points.

First, if someone is excited about a civic or government technology idea, and they reach out to you for advice or feedback, take the call and listen. Don’t be dismissive or unload your cynicism. Be encouraging.

I’m guilty of the former at times but, more and more, have made a conscious effort to be less so. It’s easy for those of us who’ve been doing this for a while to be cynical, but we’re the ones that should be the most helpful. Often, I see colleagues failing on this front. Jim’s note is a strong reminder that I need to be better about this, and I thank him for that.

Second, if you’re like Jim and are excited about changing how civics works, don’t let the curmudgeons bring you down. As with any new venture, the chances of failure are high, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try and see it through. This goes for the civic entrepreneur or the government bureaucrat.

With his permission, here’s the full email from Jim.

Keep plugging away.

Hey Luke,

A long time ago I emailed you through LinkedIn and you encouraged me to keep plugging away at my project of building a national database of all elected officials.

I was new to civic tech and didn’t know anyone and rarely received any support. Most people said to me (unnecessarily aggressive and condescendingly) “How are you going to make money with that?” but I didn’t care because I had this need to continue working on it.

Fast forward 18 or so months later and I’ve: received funding from the Sunlight Foundation, completed the entire state of Oregon and 50 of the Top 100 Counties in the US, found a permanent position with NationBuilder working on the project with their tech resources, and have a network of universities around the country that help me recruit political science interns to do the candidacy filing procedure research (almost all of the UC schools, U of Oregon, U of Washington, Boise State, U of Hawaii, CUNY, and others).

Thanks for responding to me when you didn’t know who I was and probably seemed like a lot of other people who have a passing thought on a project.

I’m confident that we’ll have the entire data for the US completed by 2017 and we’ll be launching the site this fall.

Wouldn’t have happened without a few people like yourself taking me serious and encouraging me.

Thanks again.



White House moves to a more integrated, mobile-friendly blog

Photo: White House

Photo: White House

The White House continues to roll out a better mobile experience with a newly-designed White House blog.

Of note, the layout is responsive and the daily schedule is now integrated into the daily “What’s Happening” feed. Would be interesting to start seeing a feed of all things White House (YouTube, Twitter, etc.) somewhere.

I particularly like the fist-bump photo on the feedback page, much like what I incorporated into the footer of my White House homepage comp.

More on the new changes from White House Creative Director Ashleigh Axios here.

Bloomberg commits $42 million to scale government performance management, open data

As part of a new What Works Cities initiative, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $42 million effort to help 100 U.S. cities “elevate and accelerate” their “use of data and evidence to engage citizens, make government more effective, and improve people’s lives.”

The first eight partner cities are Chattanooga, Tennessee; Jackson, Mississippi; Kansas City, Missouri; Louisville, Kentucky; Mesa, Arizona; New Orleans, Louisiana; Seattle, Washington; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Organizations that will help facilitate What Works Cities objectives include The Behavioral Insights Team, Government Performance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School, Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Government Excellence, or GovEx, Results for America and Sunlight Foundation.

One of the early contributions GovEx has made to this effort is a set of guides focused on open data and performance management implementation:

There is also the beginnings of an open data portal requirements guide and GovEx Labs, a “testing ground for collaboration, resource-sharing, and product development.” GovEx Director of Open Data Andrew Nicklin says the resources are “living, breathing books” that will continue to be iterated on. See the GovEx GitHub organization for all projects and follow on Twitter at @centerforgov.

Municipalities interested in participating in the What Works Cities program can learn more about the standard or visit

Get 10% off Code for America Summit registration with GovFresh discount code

This year’s Code for America Summit is September 30 to October 2 in Oakland, California, and friends of GovFresh get a 10 percent discount.

Register using this link:

As always, the schedule and speaker list is incredible.

Also, if you’re attending Summit and want to connect, email me at, and let’s schedule some time to meet.

Federal CIO Council releases open data prioritization toolkit

CIO CouncilThe federal CIO Council’s Innovation Committee has published an open data prioritization workbook and toolkit, including a data inventory tracker and prioritization matrix, to help agencies best evaluate and prioritize data for release to the public.

“These tools enable Agencies to evaluate what data is most critical to share with external audiences (i.e. the public and/or other Agencies); and provide a structure for gathering feedback and balancing considerations such as impacts on individuals’ privacy or on national security,” says the CIO Council in the toolkit summary.

The toolkit is an excellent resource for federal agencies, but all of the tabs in the workbook are applicable to state and local open data initiatives.

According to the CIO Council, input for the toolkit came from 500 employees across 20 agencies.

Tennessee’s new logo

Tennessee State Government

There is a lot of shortsighted chatter around the state of Tennessee’s new branding efforts and, while I don’t have a strong opinion on the logo aesthetics, which has received criticism for its $46,000 price tag, it’s important to commend the holistic approach to uniformity and why this will benefit residents (and taxpayers) in the future.

Unified branding addresses two major efficiency issues (there’s a reason why businesses do this and why more governments are beginning to):

  • streamlines future collateral design processes
  • unifies the customer experience

When there’s brand consistency, the need to reinvent the design wheel is eliminated, as are major costs around creative and production. Of course, there are short-term costs around brand transition, the long-term benefits outweigh the short.

Most importantly, what the new branding does for Tennessee residents is create a sense of customer experience consistency. Rather than experiencing what looks to be a bad set of kid stickers, Tennessee residents now enjoy a unified, professional offering of government services.

“Because each agency had developed their own identities individually there was no shared vision across the agencies, which created confusion for citizens and potential business partnerships as well as within the government,” writes Nashville-based GS&F in describing the reasoning for the new visual identity. GS&F led the re-brand process for the state.

Gov. Bill Haslam echoed these sentiments announcing the new branding:

“ is an important resource for Tennesseans and, for a lot of people, the main way they interact with state government. We are always working to serve Tennessee taxpayers more efficiently and effectively by making that experience as customer-focused as possible.”

It would be unfortunate if the state didn’t enforce usage throughout all agencies, as some have requested an exemption. It’s important that all agencies unite under the same aesthetic, as teams do, and show they want to serve Tennessee proudly, in uniformity.

Sometimes it takes money to save money (Note: The $46,000 price tag pales in comparison to what other firms charge for similar work.), and what Tennessee has done is invested in the future of government service experience. Isn’t that what we want our government leaders to do?

Congratulations to Governor Haslam for implementing modern customer experience practices into government and being willing to bring a vision of unity to resident services.