Month: July 2016

Pokémon Go(vernment)

Within seconds of opening the Pokémon Go app, my two kids found a Squirtle in the living room and a Bulbasaur in the backyard.

DigitalGov has a great synopsis of what all this could mean for government, as well as a great reminder of government’s limitations on self-created engagement strategies:

For years, agencies like the National Park Service have struggled with how to engage with and encourage younger, tech-savvy audiences to get outside and #FindYourPark. Suddenly, over the weekend, our parks are besieged by Pokémon hunters, exploring all the nooks and crannies of our parks on their quest to “catch ’em all.”

For those focused on civic technology, Pokémon Go shatters the notion that an application whose brand and sole objective is civic-focused may never be as powerful and well-used as one tied into one with a consumer focus.

It’s also a reminder to government that, when it comes to digital, should focus on its core mission and not on building stand-alone apps that attempt to get wide-scale usage. Instead, it should immerse itself where users already are, like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Nextdoor and now potentially Pokémon Go. The great thing about this is that these are free to leverage and only require creativity.

It also shows the influence Silicon Valley has (Pokémon Go was created by San Francisco-based Niantic), even when it’s creating something not intended to save the world, in connecting us to civics and government services.

While it remains to be seen whether Pokémon Go will sustain long-term, and how it can impact engagement around government services and public parks, it’s clear there’s potential, and the governments that get on board will become more and more relevant to those they serve.

Phaedra Chrousos retrospects federal government digital service

Photo: General Services Administration Office of Communications

Photo: General Services Administration Office of Communications

After two years of helping lay a new foundation for how the federal government buys, builds and delivers government digital services, Technology Transformation Service Commissioner Phaedra Chrousos announced she is stepping down.

“The creation of the Technology Transformation Service would have not been possible without her vision and leadership,” wrote General Services Administration Administrator Denise Turner Roth. “She helped scale 18F from a “minimum viable product” to an organization that agencies recognize as a critical partner in delivering services to the American public.”

I asked Chrousos to share some parting thoughts.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a startup entrepreneur turned political appointee that came into government for a short tour of duty and has been asked to take on a few different roles and titles along the way – three in two years to be exact! My latest role was helping stand up the Technology Transformation Service and my latest title is that of commissioner of that service.

What is the Technology Transformation Service and why is it important?

TTS is home to an evolving arsenal of products and services that federal agencies can use in the massive undertaking that’s underway to repair, rebuild and modernize the government’s technology.

TTS v1.0 is a purposefully experimental organization that permanently houses the Presidential Innovation Fellows, 18F, and the Office of Citizen Services, which holds products and programs like, the Web Design Standards and FedRAMP. It looks and feels like a startup that’s starting to scale – so it’s always pushing boundaries and feels creatively messy as new processes are continually put in place to support its growth.

TTS v2.0 will be a larger, more powerful, focused arsenal of products and services that are still constantly evolving to meet the needs of chief information officers across federal, state and local governments. Hopefully it will still feel like a startup in spirit, but as an ecosystem it’s reached a certain level of maturity.

Your Twitter bio, “We can’t win the future with a government of the past.” What’s government of the past?

When it comes to technology, it feels like the government of the past is absolutely everywhere.

The invisible infrastructure that supports our government and ultimately serves the American public is very fragmented, mostly clunky, often broken and sometimes insecure. As someone coming into government with no previous knowledge of how it operates behind the scenes, it was not just eye opening, but also quite alarming. Then I caught a glimpse of the $80 billion annual price tag associated with all of it – just for the federal government alone – and basically fell out of my chair.

And government of the future?

It’s pretty simple.

The government of the future is one that leverages technology to provide easy to use, secure and effective services to the American public. It’s a government that uses modern technology methodologies to not only get to better outcomes, but also dramatically decrease the cost of technology for the American taxpayer so that a good part of that $80 billion can be better spent on just about anything else.

Let’s do a retrospective. What are the wins?

The biggest wins are the people that make up TTS – they come in to serve as Presidential Innovation Fellows, part of the 18F tech bench, and product managers in the Office of Citizen Services.

Many incredible, talented technologists and innovators leave their lives behind in both the public and private sector every month to join this ecosystem. They join in large part because their patriotism that inspires them to rise to the government’s mission to serve the American public. They also join in some small part because we can offer them an environment that rewards new ideas and experimentation and feels more like a startup than the rest of government.

They are the ones that move the government forward every day.

What’s the biggest hurdle?

Believe it or not, it’s the government itself.

It’s designed in every possible way to reward risk aversion and discourage any kind of experimentation that by definition requires failing small, fast and often. Of course, that’s probably for great reason – most government organizations and services have not only reached maturity but also have a tremendous amount to lose if something goes wrong.

Unfortunately, the effort to modernize government technology is relatively nascent and needs to go through this very important experimental phase. It’s the only way we’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t.

And how are you addressing this?

We’ve taken a few very thoughtful steps to create a safe, experimental space for the team so that they can feel free to test out new ideas in a way that accommodates for failure.

Things like: standing up a monthly ideation and funding process (“the great pitch”) that anyone can pitch ideas to; creating a regular, transparent and inclusive review process for all our products and services; maintaining a flat organization so that those that are working closest with our government partners are not the ones farthest from the decision making; encouraging people to stand up and participate in thematic learning and working groups.

Finally, socializing the idea that failing small, fast and often is not only ok, but necessary – and doing that over and over again.

Changing the government of the past has to take its toll. Personally, how do you handle this?

There’s something about being on a two year sprint rather than a decade long marathon that has made this all not just doable but very exciting.

I liken it to being on a campaign or launching a startup – there’s a lot of work to be done, a very close camaraderie with colleagues, and if all goes to plan, there is usually a well deserved vacation waiting at the end.

I do really admire those that can go on for longer, and especially those that dedicate their lives to it. They deserve a tremendous amount of recognition and respect for moving the government forward despite extraordinary obstacles to execution.

For those who want to win the future, what can they do?

Come in for a tour of duty in the government – a year, two years, a decade – it doesn’t matter. I would love to live in a world where we ask the people we meet where they did their tour of duty in government with the same frequency that we ask where they went to college.

Connect with Chrousos on Twitter and LinkedIn.

San Francisco seeks chief digital services officer to lead online strategy, execution

Port of San Francisco (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

Port of San Francisco (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

San Francisco announced the creation of a new internal digital agency and is looking for a chief digital services officer to lead its efforts.

From the announcement:

The Digital Services Team will partner with departments to modernize digital services citywide. Four fundamental principles guide this task: put the needs of residents first, focus on delivery and outcomes over process, promote an agile and data driven culture, and make City services accessible to everyone.

It’s unclear what the roadmap is for building a support team to execute the city’s digital strategy, and what influence the new role will have in determining its underlying technology, but this is currently the best job opening in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Plus, you get to work closely with Joy Bonaguro and Jay Nath.

Apply here.

Government IT lobbyists play key role in blocking federal technology innovation

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

Photo: Architect of the Capitol

Government Technology’s Jason Shueh finally brings to light the core impetus surrounding backlash against 18F efforts to fix federal government technology development and procurement practices.

From Shueh’s reporting, “IT Showdown: Tech Giants Face Off Against 18F“:

At a House subcommittee hearing on June 10, lobbyists from the IT Alliance for Public Sector (ITAPS) and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) alleged that 18F is hindering profits by acting as both a procurement policymaker and as a tech competitor inside the General Services Administration (GSA). The two groups assert a conflict of interest, and in testimony, have submitted a list of grievances and recommendations intended to curtail 18F’s authority.

Rightfully so, many are frustrated with the impact vendor lobbying efforts could have on the future of a critical program actually making a difference in changing federal technology operations. Of note are the Hacker News comments discussing this story.

Since the failure of a proper launch for, negative sentiments against big government IT vendors have become more prominent. It’s interesting to see this group starting to be associated with other old line industries that, rather than changing with the times, have resorted to lobbying against a small program like 18F to remain relevant.

Full story: IT Showdown: Tech Giants Face Off Against 18F

Y Combinator wants to make cities better

Y Combinator (Photo: Paul Miller

Y Combinator (Photo: Paul Miller)

Y Combinator is looking for a team of people to lead research on how to make cities better, and will use the findings to help determine how to invest in future ventures.

High-level issues the team will address include:

  • What should a city optimize for?
  • How should we measure the effectiveness of a city (what are its KPIs)?
  • What values should (or should not) be embedded in a city’s culture?
  • How can cities help more of their residents be happy and reach their potential?
  • How can we encourage a diverse range of people to live and work in the city?
  • How should citizens guide and participate in government?
  • How can we make sure a city is constantly evolving and always open to change?

“The world is full of people who aren’t realizing their potential in large part because their cities don’t provide the opportunities and living conditions necessary for success,” writes Y Combinator’s Adora Cheung announcing the effort. “A high leverage way to improve our world is to unleash this massive potential by making better cities.”

Application deadline is July 30, 2016. You can share ideas directly via email to