Month: October 2015

California commission wants the state to design a better government

California State Capitol Building (Photo: <a href="">Jeff Turner</a>)

California State Capitol Building (Photo: Jeff Turner)

A California bipartisan oversight committee, the Little Hoover Commission, has issued recommendations on how the state can bring a more customer-centric government to residents and visitors.

The report, “A Customer-Centric Upgrade For California Government,” calls for the governor and legislature to designate a chief customer officer, which would be assumed by the Secretary of the Government Operations Agency, and an internal digital services team “to help departments deliver services that work for Californians” that would reside within GovOps.

Specific solutions recommended include single sign-on to a personalized resident account, customized text and email communications and a focus on open data and human-centered design.

From the report:

“Like the federal government has done, California too should invite the very best engineers, technologists and designers from the private sector to apply their creativity and ingenuity to help tackle some of the most challenging problems facing the state. And the Governor and Legislature must create a home within the administration to welcome them in. Teaming with the new chief customer officers and their program colleagues, who in many cases already know what’s needed to solve some of the state’s most painful organizational and customer service problems, they could champion a new path for the state to tackle problems through small, incremental, but meaningful improvements. And in doing so, begin to reinvigorate California’s pioneer spirit in the 21st century, using 21st century technology.”

While the report provides high-level recommendations, here are a few tactical areas that must be addressed in order for any of this to be effectively implemented:

Create an open source policy. The role open source has played on in-house government innovation shops, especially Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, has been critical to their success. While there have been rumblings of support, California’s technical operations is severely lacking in its willingness to truly embrace open source. Failing to do this will deeply impact the next two recommendations.

Fix IT procurement. There has also been an effort to open up the procurement process beyond legacy vendors at the federal level, but California fails to a large degree to do this. While an in-house digital team is critical, the only way impact will scale is to bring in vendors that are less about legacy business models and more about agile, open innovation. Every state IT discussion or event I’ve been privy to favors entrenched, large-scale sales operations. While the UK was able to bring most, if not all of its digital operations in-house, the scale at which California needs support is much larger, and it’ll be a long time before the state can lure top-tier talent from Silicon Valley and other tech-centered areas to work for government, so it must rely on like-minded vendors.

Distribute the talent pool. If the state is serious about hiring the “best engineers, technologists and designers,” it must open distributed offices in other California cities, particularly San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego. While 18F and USDS have lured some to Washington, D.C., Sacramento is not the nation’s capital and working for GovOps, or even the governor directly, is a far cry from the prestige of walking the halls of the Executive Office Building or White House.

Embrace the cloud. I’m not sure what the status of CalCloud is, but at one point there appeared to be an unwillingness to allow for non-government managed cloud-based services. While security considerations that must be taken into account, there needs to be more flexibility around allowing the use of third-party cloud offerings, especially those that don’t involve personal information.

The Little Hoover Commission report is an important resource for governments everywhere in understanding a new approach to addressing digital public services, and it’s great to see a state-sanctioned effort advocating this.

Let’s hope the governor and legislature move quickly to enact their recommendations and the ones above.

Download the report

Romulus wants to make constituent relationship management more delightful


Seneca Systems CEO Chris Maddox shares the inspiration behind the new constituent relationship management system, Romulus.

140-character pitch

Delightful CRM built just for local government. Manage constituent requests, collaborate with your team, get back to solving what matters.

What problems do you solve for government?

Local government offices, from elected officials to boards of education to police departments, handle hundreds of constituent requests every day. These public servants are the gateway to democracy and deserve tools that work with them to better serve citizens.

Instead of a pile of Post-Its or shared Excel spreadsheets, Romulus tracks constituent requests from submission to resolution. We automatically provide status updates to constituents via email so employees focus on what needs to get done, not worrying “how” it’s organized.

For chiefs of staff, department heads, and elected officials, we make reporting and analytics a breeze. Want to see a chart of top constituent issues for a given date range? No problem. Holding a community meeting to discuss pedestrian safety? Export contact information for just those constituents who have expressed interest, at the click of a button.

What’s the story behind Romulus?

Our founders previously helped bring delightful payroll to tens of thousands of small-businesses across America. We experienced first hand the antiquated procedures of state governments when we would ship them boxes of paper tax forms at the end of the quarter.

And that was just the external face; we shuddered to think of what their internal process looked like. As philosophers and engineers, we had the perfect mix of practical experience and idealism to do whatever it took to change things.

So Chris walks into San Francisco City Hall and speaks with everyone he can. Supervisor Katy Tang took a meeting and talked about their process for handling constituent requests. She gave us incredible feedback as we iterated through multiple solutions. From there, offices from Oakland to Chicago immediately saw the value and started coming on board. We now help teams across the United States track requests and interests for hundreds of thousands of constituents.

What are its key features?

User-centric design

If we could change anything about this industry, it would be to ingrain a focus on the needs of the users. One of our company values is Empathy, because understanding the customer is the most important part of serving them.

We don’t build features because we think they’re cool or to check off a box on an RFP. For us to have a profound impact on millions of local government employees requires nuanced insight into what matters to them.


We’ve already built an Add-In for Microsoft Outlook and synchronize with Open311 systems. Many representatives have websites where they direct constituents, so we also have an embeddable web form that submits directly into Romulus.

CRMs are only as powerful as the data they contain. We’re proud of our product design because we want our users to get excited about using Romulus. For the times when that is not possible, we make integration seamless.

Worry-free security and auditing

This goes back to focusing on the “what” and not worrying about the “how”.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and Sunshine Laws are great for transparency but can be a burden on local governments. Everything in Romulus is fully audited and redundantly backed up in multiple geographic locations. Users can export their information at any time so FOIA requests are not scary anymore.

On the security side, our servers are FedRAMP certified, which is the specification the Department of Defense uses to determine cloud-readiness. Our data is always encrypted in-flight over SSL and at rest in our databases.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

Traditional government vendors rely on exorbitant pricing and long contracts. We firmly believe this is wrong for the customer and, by extension, the constituents they are charged with serving. We are changing that with simple, transparent and affordable pricing:

  • $40 per user per month. Everything included.

No contracts, no cost for support, and we will onboard any information you have free of charge. We’ve had offices send us CSVs of tens of thousands of constituents and we get them up and running in little more than a day.

We’re passionate about fixing how governments buy software. You can read more about our philosophy on our blog.

How can those interested connect with you?

‘No ugly, old IT.’

"No ugly, old IT."

“No ugly, old IT” jumped out at me when I first reviewed DataSF’s strategic plan, “Data in San Francisco: Meeting supply, spurring demand,” and it still sticks, mostly because someone inside government was so bold as to make this a priority and openly communicate it, and also because this should be a mantra for everyone building civic technology.

Whether the end-user is the resident, citizen or bureaucrat, let’s build more civic technology that, as Google Product Lead Sandra Nam says, is “something someone would want to do instead of just another stressful part of their day.” (HT Alex Schmoe)

Here’s the full DataSF mission, vision, approach:

  1. Say no to perfection. We don’t have enough time for perfect. Something is better than nothing and you can always improve it as you learn more.
  2. Fail early and often. Failing is ok – not learning from a failure is not ok. Small experiments, failed or successful inform our next steps.
  3. Plan for the future. Create infrastructure and systems for future growth – but solve immediate problems and pain points along the way
  4. Use long division. If a problem seems too big, break it into manageable bits. There’s always a hook or a starting point to move something forward.
  5. No ugly, old IT. We leverage existing, modern, and light-weight tools and we want our designs to be beautiful, inviting but also a little fun.
  6. Use storytelling and data. We must work to find the people in the data and tell their story. Data without people is just academic.
  7. Seek institutional homes. Distribute, share and foster excellence. While we may incubate programs, ideas or projects, we ultimately need to find a full-time home.
  8. Learn to infinity and listen with humility. Continuously learn from ourselves and others and build on existing frameworks. “Not invented here” attitudes are strictly prohibited.
  9. Start with problems, move to opportunities. We start with people’s needs and problems but also use the chance to show them some cool, new stuff for the future.
  10. If we don’t start now, we’ll never get there. We don’t want to look back in five years and think “if we had just…”. Every shady street started with a row of saplings.

Read the full DataSF strategic plan.

Why is a big deal



Enabling internal government tech shops to quickly stand up applications in a secure testing environment is fundamental to quick prototyping, and 18F’s new is a major step in realizing ultimate IT flexibility.

I reached out to GovReady founder Greg Elin who is working on “making FISMA a platform instead of paperwork,” and he replied with the following comments that are better than anything I could say on the subject:

18F’s is a tectonic shift in government IT because it replaces policy with platform. components accelerate the much needed replacement of PDF-based guidance with running code. It’s the difference between a book about Javascript and just using jQuery.

For most of the past 20 years, the CIO Council, NIST, and most agency IT shops have focused on policies and procedures to provide contractual requirements for vendors doing the work. That’s not criticizing anyone, it’s how the system was set up. The CIO Council’s authority is to provide recommendations–not write code. NIST’s mission is to advance measurement science and standards development–not build platforms.

Take the CIO Council’s enterprise architecture efforts or NIST’s Risk Management Framework as examples. They provide incredibly rich, comprehensive expert guidance distributed in documents. Unfortunately, contracts, contractors and projects implement the guidance differently enough that interoperability and reusability rarely occurs between bureaus or across agencies. In contrast, over the past decade in the private sector and on the Internet, knowledge has become immediately actionable via open source, APIs and GitHub repos. It’s a golden era of shared solutions powered by StackOverflows and code snippets, package managers and Docker containers.

If 18F’s succeeds at encompassing official policies and regulations into loosely coupled running code, then contracts are easier to write, vendors aren’t constantly reinventing things, and projects happen faster.

Learn more about

FCC launches beta



Based on “extensive user research,” the Federal Communications Commission has launched a beta version of that aims to make the site “more useful and accessible to FCC stakeholders.”

The test site is located at

“Based on the additional feedback we receive during the website’s extended Beta period, we intend to complete the switch to the new site fully later this fall with more details to be shared in the weeks ahead,” writes FCC CIO David Bray announcing the beta.

Users can give feedback online or via email at

Oakland seeks chief information officer

Oakland (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

Oakland (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

Oakland is looking for its next chief information officer to help position the city “at the forefront of American cities in its use of technology.”

This is an extremely incredible opportunity for anyone who wants to get in on the ground floor in helping to transform the best city in the Bay Area (sorry San Francisco) and help foster a different kind of tech community both inside and outside government. For the government innovator who recognizes potential and is willing to invest in the long game, this is the job of a lifetime.

From the announcement:

The City of Oakland, California is conducting a national search for the position of Chief Information Officer (CIO). The CIO will join a newly formulated Executive Team committed to innovation and the transformation of local government through leading ideas and practices. Individuals wanting to contribute and position Oakland at the forefront of American cities in its use of technology to support daily operations, the business of delivering services to the community, and engagement with citizens, are strongly encouraged to submit.

The position of CIO will oversee over 70 staff members and be responsible for Customer and Enterprise Services, Information Systems – General and Public Safety, Infrastructure Support including applications development, central computer operations, hardware, software, and peripheral support and maintenance, and telecommunications.

Salary is $125,186.00 to $187,779.00. Application deadline is November 8.

Details here.

Elon Musk as government innovator

President Barack Obama, left, Air Force Col. Lee Rosen, Commander, 45th Launch Group, center, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk talk with Dr. John P. Holdren is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology during a tour of the commercial rocket processing facility of Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Thursday, April 15, 2010.

Photo: NASA

After reading Ashlee Vance’s new Elon Musk biography, I find myself wondering whether we should really worry about bad government websites, and instead chalk them up as inspiration for those who will change the world.

Musk, after visiting NASA’s website and not finding the agency’s plan for getting to Mars, started inquiring into the state of space in general, and the rest is SpaceX history.

While “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” is about Musk’s multiple entrepreneurial ventures, it’s also an inspiration to those who look to change government from the outside. Often, we hear much about (and from) the innovators within, but Vance does an incredible service chronicling Musk’s evolution from that first visit to to building SpaceX, including out-competing and out-innovating established government vendors, such as Lockheed and Boeing, and eventually working alongside them and NASA to revolutionize America’s space program.

“Elon Musk” is not just for those in Silicon Valley hoping to become the next Elon Musk. It’s for everyone in government who wants to change it from within by understanding how they can better empower those on the outside. The space anecdotes are particularly helpful inspiration in opening the eyes to what’s possible and how government can truly realize its innovation potential.

While not everyone can be Elon Musk, Vance’s insights into how one entrepreneur inspired government (and its entrenched service providers) to innovate are an important observation and lesson to acknowledge, especially for those developing processes hoping to foster government innovation, because often it happens outside the walls of the bureaucracy.

We just need to better enable it.