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

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.

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Thank you, Jake

Jake Brewer speaking at PDF 2014. (Photo: Personal Democracy Media)

Jake Brewer speaking at PDF 2014. (Photo: Personal Democracy Media)

I’m still stunned and heartbroken by the news that we’ve lost Jake Brewer.

Jake and I met six years ago at TransparencyCamp West, where I interviewed him and was able to capture a little bit of how he saw the world, and what needed to be done to make it better.

The last time we communicated was via text on his first day in his new role with the White House and, in between those years, as he has with so many others, he always inspired me with his graceful approach to change and impact.

After I got the news Sunday morning, I started to watch the interview and broke down in disbelief and sadness that I still feel as I write this.

There have been countless, beautiful anecdotes on Jake’s compassion, humility and contributions, and there’s nothing I can add that would do justice to honor the influence he’s had on me other than to say, Jake, I miss you so much, and you will be with me always as I try to live up to the standards you set for those of us still here.

Related: Micah Sifry has a great tribute and excellent anecdote. President Obama issued a statement, and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith expanded with a White House blog post. Friends have set up a memorial education fund for his children.

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.



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

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.

Feds publish guide to setting up an open source project


18F has published a guide that helps federal government workers standardize GitHub use and better leverage the social coding platform when setting up open source projects.

Tips include how to best name and describe projects, create readable READMEs , write user story focused issues, wiki best practices and a GitHub repo checklist.

Additional thoughts that would make the guide more helpful:

  • Add a section on collaborators and permissions.
  • Encourage including a link for the ‘Website for this repository’ next to the description whenever possible.
  • Next to the ‘Edit this page’ link, add a ‘Submit feedback’ link to the issues section for the guide so it’s easier to giv feedback. In general, if you’re going to have either option, it’s best to have both, especially the latter.
  • One bug: The images on aren’t responsive.


The changing relationship between tech and government

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (Photo: <a href="">DC Mayor's Office</a>)

Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (Photo: DC Mayor’s Office)

Silicon Valley venture capital firm a16z hosts an excellent discussion with current Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and former mayor Adrian Fenty on its a16z Podcast series.

The episode, “The Changing Relationship Between Tech and Government,” touches on how the sharing economy has pushed government to let go of top-down innovation and find ways to collaborate with these new ventures, as well as get proactive in cultivating an environment that supports local startup ecosystems.

Bowser shares her thoughts on how mayors can work with these new firms to better gauge the pulse of the residents and advises tech entrepreneurs to focus on the largely untapped market market of human services, such as affordable housing, health and wellbeing and homelessness.

The discussion also underscores the importance tech firms must give to the third of Steve Case’s “3 P’s“: policy.


Gauging civic wellbeing

Santa Monica Pier (Photo: Maëlick)

Santa Monica Pier (Photo: Maëlick)

There’s been much emphasis on the smart city, using data to analyze efficiency and manage sensory understanding of infrastructure, but we continue to see an evolution of emotional intelligence coming from government, from Louisville’s Compassionate City Campaign to San Francisco’s emphasis on delight, and now Santa Monica’s The Wellbeing Project, an index that takes into account health, place, community, learning and economic opportunity.

According to its site, The Wellbeing Project will “harness the power of data to provide a shared understanding of our community’s strengths and needs, encouraging collaboration among city leaders, local organizations, and residents to improve our collective wellbeing.”

Supported by a $1,000,000 grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the city developed a Wellbeing Index and released a report of its findings this past April.

As mentioned in an earlier post, we’ll continue to see public sector innovators focus on the emotional intelligence aspects of cities and how measuring this is critical to civic wellbeing, especially as data-driven frameworks mature.

Santa Monica Human Services Manager Julie Rusk in Fast Company:

“One of the things that we were really attempting to do is go beyond the traditional ways that governments use data, like miles of bike lanes, trees per acre, or crime rates … These are things we know are important, but what we wanted to do is take some of that data and combine it with surveys and social media to really understand how people are experiencing their lives.”

Mayor Kevin McKeown in a prepared statement announcing the release:

“By applying the science of wellbeing to local governance, we are looking far beyond the standard economic performance measurements, and creating a more complete and meaningful understanding of our community … In pioneering this innovation, we can more effectively improve the life experiences of our own residents, using an unprecedented level of data-driven knowledge about wellbeing to shape public policy.”