Month: November 2015

Thank you

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

Photo: White House/Pete Souza

Every day I get to engage with entrepreneurs, public sector innovators and journalists on re-imagining and re-energizing how government works, what it means to be “civic,” and this year has been an incredible one for many friends and colleagues.

Special congratulations and thank you’s to public and private sector organizations, including CivicActions, NuCivic, Agile Government Leadership, DataSF, 18F, U.S. Digital Service and the California Government Operations Agency.

Thank you to the many entrepreneurs that reach out and share their ideas, enthusiastically accept feedback and believe there is no greater business venture and way to leverage your technical talent than trying to make a more pleasant, civil society. There’s startup life, and there’s civictech/govtech startup life. Speaking from experience, the latter takes much more empathy and mettle.

Thank you to my friends and colleagues in the media including, but not limited to, Alex Howard, Micah Sifry, Goldy Kamali, Camille Tuutti and Troy Schneider for continuing to cover progress and make the industry more timely, relevant and beholden to principles of openness and innovation.

Thank you to Dustin Haisler, Brian Purchia and Alissa Black for regularly checking in and serving as sounding boards.

Thank you especially to Aaron Pava, Henry Poole, Elizabeth Raley, Kevin Herman, Jeff Lyon, Alex Schmoe, Andrew Hoppin for being collaborators and friends throughout 2015. I’ve never looked forward to a new civic year like I am with 2016.

For those of you reading this or have ever read or shared anything here on GovFresh, thank you <insert fist bump here>.

The work we do is hard and often thankless. Keep plugging away.

Thank you.

Funding government technology

Govtech Fund Managing Partner Ron Bouganim (Photo: Code for America)

Govtech Fund Managing Partner Ron Bouganim (Photo: Code for America)

I’m always inspired talking and working with entrepreneurs trying to solve big civic problems, especially those who realize much of the challenge lies within modernizing and empowering internal government operations, so it was great to finally meet with Govtech Fund Founder and Managing Partner Ron Bouganim this week.

Govtech Fund aims to “harness the power of transformers, technology, and capital to help government become more efficient, responsive, and better able to serve society.” Bouganim has raised $23 million to make this happen, and the fund has made five investments to date, including SmartProcure, Mark43, SeamlessDocs, AmigoCloud and mySidewalk (formerly MindMixer), with a sixth soon to be announced.

Bouganim differentiates between govtech and civictech, the former focusing on internal agency technology infrastructure, or the “government operating system,” such as procurement, permitting, GIS and fraud detection, and the latter being citizen-focused services.

What strikes me about Bouganim, besides the fact that he’s helping to build a Mandarin immersion school in San Francisco, is his complete focus to the government technology sector, from educating other venture capitalists on the space to managing deal flow and putting his money where his mouth is.

“This is the last job I’ll ever do,” Bouganim told me.

To learn more about Bouganim’s perspective on funding government technology, read Next City’s profile from earlier this year and watch his 2015 Code for America Summit talk:

Government and the ’empowered product owner’

The 18F Delivery team released a “Partnership Playbook” that aims to help federal agencies understand what to expect when working with 18F, and the gem within is play number two, “We work with an empowered product owner.”

The product owner will soon evolve into one of the most important roles in government technology, so it’s critical for those leading development teams to understand its application.

Key excerpt:

We work best with an empowered product owner who can make decisions about the project we’re partnering on. In agile development, a product owner is responsible for project scoping and prioritizing. Our delivery team will rely on the product owner for direction as the project develops. This product owner must be empowered to make decisions about the product. The product owner should be experienced at getting buy-in from other organizational leaders; support should be lined up before our engagement.

We look for a product owner who has already lined up internal stakeholder support. Any project will impact a number of internal agency groups and systems, so it will need buy-in and technical integration support from those people. The product owner garners this buy-in and support. Before the engagement starts, the owner should have had conversations with and identified champions in relevant internal groups. Beginning these conversations in the middle of development can grind everything to a halt; they should be well underway by the time a digital service team is brought on board to deliver. We recommend that you map out the relevant stakeholders before embarking on a project.

Having an empowered product owner is crucial to decisions getting made and having a solid product vision. Play number two is required reading for everyone building government digital services.

Benchmarking for better government

What if I told you the U.S. Government spends $581 billion on defense spending?

You’d probably say this sounds like a huge figure – a number that is unfathomable and tough to relate to.

What if I then gave you this same figure in another context: the U.S. Government spends $1,782 per person every year which is 1,776% higher than the next highest spending nation on defense.

Some may say this is good and necessary; some may say that is outrageous.

Regardless of your vantage, the point of this exercise is to emphasize how necessary context is when discussing financial metrics. In other words, the figure sounded huge to begin with, but it was not until you compared this figure to other countries on a per capita basis that its enormity became apparent and the figure became relatable to you on a personal level.

Unfortunately, most governments approach financial transparency by simply posting complexing and overwhelming PDFs or spreadsheets to their website. They take the honorable step of sharing their financial statements, but do not offer the reader any context. Citizens simply glaze over when they are confronted by a sea of large numbers with many zeros. These figures need to be relatable to the person reading the data. Otherwise, open data is just more data that dies on the vine.

ClearGov was founded to confront this very problem.

The ClearGov concept started with one very simple question: Should I vote “yes” or “no” for my town to fund $7 million of debt to build a new school?

I wanted to vote “yes,” but I thought to myself:

  • “How much does the town already spend on education?”
  • “Are we spending too much already?”
  • “How much debt does the town have now?”
  • “Do we have too much debt already?”
  • “Are our debt levels getting better or worse?”

In searching for answers on the town’s website, I found an 215-page annual report that was riddled with terminology and financial data that only someone with many years experience in public accounting could understand. I did, however, find out that our town spends $35 million on education and has nearly $52 million of debt, but without context these number were nearly meaningless to me.

This became the seed that grew into ClearGov.

A year later, the team at ClearGov has crafted a platform that transforms publicly available finances from local governments into easy-to-understand infographics. Each metric is accompanied by a comparison benchmark powered by a sophisticated algorithm that benchmarks local governments by size of population and median home values within a given radius of the city or town. Currently covering California, Massachusetts and New York, ClearGov has over 2,000 profiles of local governments revenues, expenditures and debt.

Source: ClearGov

Source: ClearGov

An example of an infographic created by ClearGov.

It is our hope that this data can help citizens make more informed votes on upcoming ballots and government officials can leverage this data to make more informed budget decisions. We firmly believe that when open data is given context is can help data realize its full potential.

And, by the way, I did find the answers to my questions. My town’s debt is 7 percent higher than similar towns and it spends 14 percent more than similar towns on education.

Source: ClearGov

Source: ClearGov

My town’s debt is reasonable in comparison to similar towns in the area.

With this in mind, I voted “yes” as I didn’t think the additional debt to fund the new school was going to put the town out of reason. My vote was just one vote, but it was informed.

It will be interesting to see how more relatable will affect elections when many more voters are better informed through data with context.

9 reasons why Vets.gov is the future of federal government websites

Source: Vets.gov

Source: Vets.gov

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a beta version of Vets.gov, and it’s the future of federal government digital development.

Here’s why:

Service-focused

Gone are the carousels, clunky blocks of information and seemingly self-serving updates on what the agency secretary is doing.

Instead, the user interface is focused on its core customer needs. There are limited graphics and calls to action, and the homepage especially shows discipline and confidence in its restraint, focusing on two user stories and popular, behavior-driven “Quick Links.”

Beta

This says it all:

“This site is a work in progress. We’re designing in the open.”

Secretary Robert McDonald explains why the agency is designing in beta. More on VA’s approach to beta and development methodology.

HTTPS

18F initiated HTTPS by default late last year, and this is important because it offers visitors the guarantee of a secure and private connection.

You can read more about HTTPS and why it’s important for government to adopt here, here, here, here and here.

No navigation

This is a bold and welcome move. No navigation menu and a focus on search and strong footer links shows confidence in design that emphasizes page-specific information with simple options to locate more or start from the beginning.

Digital Analytics Program

The General Services Adminstration’s Digital Analytics Program is an important effort to provide visibility into federal web traffic, and Vets.gov is participating in the program, as should every federal agency.

Active feedback

In the bottom right corner, there’s a feedback mechanism that allows users to give input on various aspects of the website.

“When you post an idea to our feedback forum, others will be able to subscribe to it and make comments,” says the site.

Having an open forum such as this allows users to see what’s been submitted and provides more transparency into the feedback. Most sites use a contact form which leaves the user wondering when and if it will ever be addressed.

Playbook

The Vets.gov playbook provides all aspects of the team — editorial, design, development — with guidance to build a unified website based on core principles and processes.

Open source

The website has its own GitHub repo where you can download, fork, issue a pull request or add feedback. From the playbook, it appears it’s using Foundation and U.S. Web Design Standards for front-end development, both of which are open source.

Easter egg

Hidden in the comments of the source code is the Abraham Lincoln quote, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” While this is mostly interesting to me and anyone else who might be looking at the code, it’s an important, constant reminder to everyone working on this project why and who they’re building it for.

Congratulations to the team working on this. While the GitHub contributor list (go Danny Chapman!) is short, I’m sure there are many others behind it, and they should be proud they’re taking a bold step and setting the standard for how federal websites should be built.

Why local government must go digital

Flag of WalesThe Welsh Government released a report of its findings on how local government in Wales can better leverage digital technologies and realize significant savings while still providing quality, scalable citizen services.

The report includes local and national government anecdotes and recommendations for a Welsh Digital Framework that would help Wales progress faster with respect to technology and social media solutions.

Key excerpt:

Camden recognises that digital is a critical option for delivering savings. The authority is expected to see its £350m budget reduced by £70m by 2017-18. Camden have identified that £50m of these savings will come from digital. They also acknowledge that not all digital requirements can be met in-house and that the private sector can make a strategic contribution. Rather than the private sector driving the strategy, in Camden it is often the supplier of infrastructure (cloud-hosting/email).

Download the report

HT Dominic Campbell