CivStart is a new government-focused start-up accelerator that wants to ensure civic technology products “don’t get made in a vacuum — that they serve the needs of our most vulnerable and underserved communities.”
Co-founders Nick Lyell, Anthony Jamison and Sarah Kerner share their mission, and why they started CivStart.
What problem does CivStart want to solve?
In short, local and state governments are responsible for serving their communities in ways that have significant impacts on people’s lives, but have not always tapped into the best resources to do so. CivStart wants to help governments innovate their processes and tools by connecting them to effective new solutions.
We look at what we are solving from two different viewpoints, based on our audience; state and local government leaders and startups.
There are a couple issues we are addressing here at CivStart:
Identifying startup technologies that are providing solutions which address the challenges and issues state and local governments face on a day to day basis as they plan for the future. Whether that is understanding where your vulnerable populations are during a disaster so that you can deploy assets strategically or providing affordable transportation options to your communities so that they don’t have to take multiple bus lines. Our goal is to find these technologies and offer them to government leaders so that they can ensure that their communities are healthy, secure and vibrant.
Helping startups scale and enter the market the right way. We understand that startups have a mandate to grow and to grow fast (as we are startup ourselves). However, the state and local market is incredibly unique and complex to navigate for many large companies, let alone startups. A lot of business in this sector is won through relationship. Government decision-makers want to know that they can trust you, so selling to state and local requires a different approach than what a lot of these companies are used to when cornering the market. Startups need to know what the pressing issues are, and position their solutions in a way to address those challenges.
What was the inspiration for starting CivStart?
In our experience we’ve noticed:
Governments are often unaware of new technologies available to help them better serve their communities.
Many new companies don’t know how to navigate the public sector market and build relationships with the governments they want to help.
This inspired us to create a nonprofit that works with multiple stakeholders to bring these groups together and solve both issues.
What is CivStart looking for in its participating startups?
Of course, we want the biggest and brightest startups to be apart of our portfolio. However, working in the space that we work in, we can’t just be focused on the next best idea, solution, or service; instead, we seek startups who are solving real state and local problems and that we believe can have a real impact on improving people’s lives.
We try to prioritize our focus on access and opportunity for underserved and unconnected communities through health, public safety & emergency services, transportation & infrastructure workforce development, economic and community development, gender equity, civic tech, digital and financial inclusion ventures. One of our main organizational goals is to have our cohort members promoting gender and racial/ethnic diversity within the tech community.
How is CivStart supporting your portfolio companies?
CivStart helps startups forge meaningful connections with leaders in the public and private sectors to turn compelling technology into viable, scalable, solutions for the state and local space.
Each startup is in our program for 24 months, during which we’ll offer educational programming, facilitated mentorships and advisory relationships, and help cohort members build their networks in strategic ways.
We empower technology entrepreneurs to work with governments towards positive localized social and environmental change.
What does success look like for CivStart?
Success for us in many forms.
The obvious measure of success is the growth rate of our startups. We fail if our startups do not win market share; however, being an honest broker of solutions for state and local governments is also a key indicator of success.
We want governments, and the people that work with them and for them, to know that we are thinking of how we can strategically serve their needs and challenges when we engage with selecting startups technologies. They can come to us knowing that we put these startups through a program that emphasizes treating governments as partners and not just customers.
The National Science Foundation issued a statement admonishing governments that “endeavor to benefit from the global research ecosystem” and fail to uphold the agency’s values of openness, transparency and collaboration.
In the statement, NSF said:
“The values that have driven NSF and its global research partners for decades are openness, transparency, and reciprocal collaboration; these are essential for advancing the frontiers of knowledge.”
Actions NSF took to encourage governments to better cooperate with these values:
policy guidance for researchers on requirements to disclose foreign and domestic support
a study that will provide recommendations for NSF to better protect its merit review system and for grantee institutions to maintain balance between openness and security of scientific research
new policy requirement that NSF personnel employed can’t participate in foreign government talent recruitment programs “that may jeopardize the integrity of NSF’s mission and operations”
The U.S. Government Accountability Office published a bullish report on the impact cloud services has had on federal government agency technology savings.
Thirteen of 16 agencies reviewed indicated they saved $291 million between 2014 and April 2019 from cloud services use. Because of a lack of reporting standards or guidance, “it is likely that agency-reported cloud spending and savings figures were underreported,” GAO wrote in its analysis.
“Find the truth. Tell the truth.” is a core value of the U.S. Digital Service, and Ben Damman uses the mantra to share his sentiments on how it applies to California technology projects, particularly related to the nascent Office of Digital Innovation.
While Ben’s context is California, the gist applies to governments everywhere.
The traditional operating public sector principle is to shut down the hard conversations. This is common in command and control leaderships that discourage open discussions or questioning of authority. We see this dynamic within the bureaucratic hierarchy, but also with the relationship between government and vendors.
This is important, because when digital projects fail, it’s often not the technology, but the underlying culture that sets the precedence for success or failure. Operating inside a culture of fear will inevitably lead to digital project failure.
As Ben notes, especially in this day and age, “Eventually the truth does come out, but there are usually severe consequences for kicking the can so far down the road.”
Ben’s comments here are especially important for anyone in a government leadership position:
Telling the truth creates the space necessary to actually solve a problem. It allows decision makers to see what is really happening and decide to make necessary changes. It can unleash teams; empowering them to work with confidence and clarity.
When creating a results-oriented culture, truth-telling is fundamental. I have observed that teams pursuing the truth are more focused on results.
Teams that prioritize project optics over reality usually struggle to produce desired outcomes. State leaders must recalibrate incentives. If consultants and staff are punished for telling the truth, they are not going to tell the truth — putting projects in jeopardy. Instead, truth-tellers must be rewarded. They have to feel safe and be empowered.
In my experience, teams that face facts are more able to trust each other. Low truth environments produce low trust teams. On IT projects, where collaboration and coordinated iteration are paramount, low trust translates to low performance and high conflict communication.
It turns out that telling the truth is not just a moral imperative. Over time, it is more efficient than hiding the truth. Dishonesty creates friction.
I am reminded of times when I’ve seen government employees struggle to tell the whole truth without getting into trouble. They performed verbal somersaults; twisting events to formulate a positive spin on project status, misconduct, or some obvious collective failure.
Code.gov — the platform that makes it easier to find open source code developed by the U.S. Government — announced updates that includes aesthetics aligned with the U.S. Web Design System and better adherence to accessibility standards.
We are thrilled to begin this new chapter of innovation and creativity with you. Our new approach to a definitive online presence provides Code.gov with a differentiated visual identity system to complement updated content and streamlined user resources. By no means, though, does this mean that this website is “done” and will not change. We have said before that “Technology is always in a state of flux…” and we believe in always improving our platform in order to provide a better experience for you. We will continue to review and update key elements of our website as the Internet evolves. This redesign is part of “America’s Code” so that we can offers everyone a chance to fulfill a civic duty on a digital platform, one line of code at a time.
I’m a big proponent of the open labs concept in government, because it creates space for a more inclusive approach to innovation beyond just a position or department.
The United Kingdom and Argentina governments are working on what they call the Policy Innovation Exchange that creates the potential for a much-needed, broad-scale government-to-government open collaboration organization that addresses common issues each — and others — have.
Ultimately, what this can enable is better sharing of policies, technologies and culture exchanges, helping innovation to holistically be free beyond localized innovation bubbles.
Government labs around the world are finding ways to improve the decisions that public officials take. We are generating evidence that enables co-creation of public policies, we have an interdisciplinary perspective of problems and we prototype before implementing in order to reduce risk.
But we need to remember that our efforts are part of something bigger. Labs are changing the paradigm of thinking, designing and implementing public policies.
Perhaps it is time to move from labs learning from each other, to labs working together and executing projects jointly?
The Director of ODI will build a world-class team, create the culture, build the institution, and deliver real results. The Director will also become the de facto community leader and convener of innovators across the state. This is a tremendous opportunity to build a movement, and develop capabilities statewide. The Director will also provide advice and guidance to senior government officials grounded in deep experience and an understanding of what works.
In January, California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed the new innovation office as part of the state’s 2019-20 budget.
The office will reside under GovOps and “have the authority to develop and enforce requirements for departments to assess their service delivery models and underlying business processes from an end-user perspective.”
This line in the job description — placed at the end — stands out as a red flag and will cause potential external candidates or folks with little government experience from applying: “Bureaucracy-savvy. You know what it means to work in a large bureaucracy, and understand how to deliver in one.”
I’m not sure the value of requiring or communicating this, even if it looks like an afterthought, but perhaps the message is that the state does just want that experience for this first-time role. It should be noted that both the U.S. Digital Service and United Kingdom Government Digital Service were first led by outsiders who had no previous government experience.
Having said that, this is a civic technologist’s dream job, especially if you’re a Golden State resident who wants to have a major impact on how your state governments serves your fellow Californians.
Help spread the word
We’re looking to hire the first-ever Director of the California Office of Digital Innovation. The job? Nothing short of transforming state gov into a user-friendly, service focused, people-first platform. Are you up for the challenge? https://t.co/B1a8bfXiU1
— Office of the Governor of California (@CAgovernor) June 3, 2019
Written by former United Kingdom Government Digital Service founders and leaders, Digital Transformation at Scale provides insights into the steps to take to create a functional, sustainable, accountable, scalable organization that is a conduit for government change. The granularity of advice, such as what to do first — first team, first 100 days, first projects — to sharing the work to ensuring failing projects are stopped to promoting savings are extremely insightful and practical.
As the authors note, digital is more than just technology:
“Digital transformation is not all about technology; it is about changing the way you work. … [It’s] about building a new type of organisation around internet-era principles, not adding technical complexity to try and fix analogue organisations. It means changing how an organisation runs itself in the background at least as much as changing what its users actually see.
“The biggest change is how you deliver. Working in empowered, multidisciplinary teams. Starting with the needs of users. Publishing your work in the open. Iteratively improving what you do. Testing new services with real people. Using tools of the open internet over expensive proprietary options. Writing clearly for a wide audience. Showing prototypes and working code as a substitute for papers and meetings. Building trust between people in your organisation, and those who it works with. Designing with data. Doing the hard work to make things simple.”
In 2013, GDS had 200 employees. Today, there are more than 850 managing delivery, guidance, marketplace and multiple platforms and products. It has inspired much of the digital government organization landscape, and Digital Transformation at Scale is the playbook for anyone — from elected officials to government administrators — sincerely interested in reforming how government serves the people.
While I went so far as to create brand elements, social media accounts, project management and strategic documentation on this, I just haven’t found the time or energy to execute in a way that would do it justice.
Normally, with ideas that I prototype and don’t act on, I delete and move on, archiving them as just another experiment in learning and creative processing. For some reason, I think this one has the potential to impact the conversation around government change in a creative, interesting format.
California is on the cusp of ushering in a new era of government digital services, one that our elected leaders can finally align, prioritize and execute on, and prove to the people of the Golden State that our representatives are ready to innovate just as other industries here have done.
The future of the digital government services we deserve is in the hands of Governor Gavin Newsom and the California state legislature, who now must work together and execute on a holistic, forward-thinking plan, with both having a strong understanding and commitment to what this means, so that there’s little confusion as to how it will work.
Newsom himself authored a book focused on digital public service and the scalable, impactful power of civic technology. He has championed modern technologies — from open standards to software-as-a-service — throughout his political career. We have a California governor that gets digital and technology better than anyone previous, and perhaps more so than any other governor in the United States.
This, coupled with the legislature’s understandable frustrations with recurring, failed, billion dollar technology projects — and many poorly-executed million dollar ones — offers the perfect storm to propel us towards the digital change we need.
Newsom has proposed a new Office of Digital Innovation as part of the state’s 2019-20 budget, with initial start-up costs of $36.2 million and 50 positions.
When the official budget is approved in June, we’ll know better what type of commitment will be made to this effort and how far forward-thinking California — a state that prides itself on technology innovation — will “think different.”
This first $36 million is the seed money we need to create the scalable digital revolution that will change California government services for the better, forever
There is typically confusion as to the difference between digital and technology. While digital leverages technology, digital is not purely a technology function. Digital is a scalable, sustainable approach to serving people online.
Government technology departments at their core should focus on setting a directive that provides governance and guidelines to all agencies. They also should procure and manage general, multi-use software and platforms at licenses and costs that financially benefit the state. Their core function ensures there is an exponential approach to how the state is leveraging technology, be it bespoke, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) or a combination of both.
While an important one, technology is just one component of digital government service delivery.
It’s important for government leaders — particularly elected officials responsible for budget allocation — to distinguish between digital and technology, so as to not confuse past IT failures and building a future digital government strategy. Our government leaders must understand that the former has often occurred because the lack of the latter.
These technologies have grown in usage because of an open, exponential mindset, the same one the government of today must have. As do technology entrepreneurs, our public sector leaders must ask this question when thinking exponential government:
“How do we serve the most people as efficiently and effectively and resourcefully as possible?”
Incremental government service delivery is the status quo approach responsible for government technology failures in California and globally. Rooted in a lack of standards or a technology directive that provides guidance as to how all systems should operate.
California government leaders must “think exponential,” enforcing standards and guidance rooted in open and platform-based standards and technologies that empower state public servants to do their jobs the way they intend.
Exponential questions California state leaders should ask about every digital or technology initiative:
How does it build a more unified, elegant experience for the people of California?
How does this scale to other agencies?
How will it save money for the state of California?
The United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service was founded in 2011. By 2013, it had 200 employees. Today, it has more than 850, all managing delivery, guidance, a marketplace and multiple platforms and products that uniformly serve the people of UK.
Its genesis came from a 2010 report, Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution, that advocated for bold recommendations, including a unified digital presence, a designated team with “absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels, commissioning all government online information from other departments.”
It also recommended a “CEO for Digital … absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services (websites and APls) and the power to direct all government online spending.”
It has become the blueprint for how governments can elegantly and exponentially execute digital services holistically and sustainably. It has brought respect and pride to the work of public service not just in the UK, but globally.
The GDS birth and evolution, including lessons-learned and recommendations for how to build a government digital service elsewhere, are well-documented in Digital Transformation at Scale, written by four of its founders and former executive, design and technology leaders. It is a must-read for every public service employee anywhere.
Exponential digital will require aspirational and bold leadership from Governor Newsom and the California legislature, some that may not be popular to status quo thinkers. Following successful digital execution in the UK, California should learn from this and make these tough choices for the sake of the people and the future of state public service.
The word ‘innovation’ and general concept evoke a sentiment that those involved with it will not be focused on meaningful, concrete deliverables. The proposed Office of Digital Innovation should be renamed to emphasize actual service delivery and not transcendental technology endeavors that do not involve solving real problems right now. This new organization needs to be taken seriously from the start, and naming it based on function is as important for optics as it is for internal focus.
The proposed organization should be named Digital California, California Digital Services, or something similar that indicates deliverables at scale is its primary focus.
Appoint an empowered chief digital officer (and internet-era CTO)
Digital California needs a senior-level executive that holds rank with other cabinet officials and has a mandate to lead comprehensive digital services into the future. If this person is third-tier on the organizational chart, Digital California won’t have the political, financial or administrative authority to effectively execute and will potentially devolve into an incremental organization.
The time has also come for an internet-era chief technology officer that either works within Digital California or as the chief executive of the California Department of Technology. California must have a leader with bonafide IT experience and proven leadership understanding deeply and deploying technology on multiple fronts to establish a proactive technology directive, as well as better vet current projects.
Move to single domain
Just as California has currently, prior to GDS, the UK government had multiple websites under multiple domains (some outside of the official government .gov one) with varying aesthetics, functionality and accessibility, security and/or mobility adherence. As it now does in California, this caused duplicate development efforts, inconsistent user experiences and a general focus on the organization or agency, rather than how the end user expects to experience a government service.
To address this issue, as the UK did with GOV.UK, California must move all web operations to its primary domain, ca.gov, and begin consolidating all websites and transactions into a “One California” user experience. The single domain approach must include a service manual, design principles, service standard and digital strategy, aligning digital direction forward, much like the technology directive will for IT.
Publish a technology directive
In collaboration with Digital California, the California Department of Technology must develop a technology directive that outlines standards, governance and guidelines for implementing and managing technology used by the state.
Design for performance, availability and scalability
Design for security and privacy
California has yet to deliver proactive technology leadership such as Canada’s, and it’s imperative going forward that it does. Having a coherent, holistic framework for how the state procures and manages its relationship with technology — whether bespoke or through third-party software and platform services — is a requisite for the health of future California IT projects and digital delivery.
Implement spending controls
California should never again have to experience billion dollar IT failures. As the UK government did, there must be spending controls that limit the lifetime value of an IT contract. In the UK’s case, it was $100 million.
“Any large organization with growing IT costs needs to recognise that it is running against market trends; the cost of established technology is falling, and the last thing an organization needs is to buy even more of it. If you want the same outcomes for your business, your IT should get cheaper. If you want outcomes that improve at the same rate as technology evolves, the costs should stay broadly the same. And if you want to be at the bleeding edge, you should make very sure you are making a wise investment.”
Digital California should establish an assessment team to determine whether projects should be dissolved before they turn into epic failures. Based on objective standards and knowledge of delivery and technology, this team should be empowered to shutter any project that isn’t meeting its intended service objective.
“Those responsible for making decisions over the wisdom of a technology investment or digital service should be people who deeply understand technology or who have built digital services. This sounds obvious, but is often not the case. Rather than clever generalists looking at forms, appraisals and assessments were led by multidisciplinary panels of specialists experts unafraid of putting a few noses out of joint, not generalists with one eye on their career.”
Measure and publish progress
Digital California must continuously be open about its progress, from delivery status to fiscal impact. There should be reporting that highlights, in the context of digital, how it’s answering the three questions posed earlier:
How is it building a more unified, elegant experience for the people of California?
How is it scaling to other agencies?
How is it saving money for the state of California?
In its 2012 report, GDS estimated it would save “between £1.7 billion and £1.8 billion could be realised as total annual savings to the government and service users.” In 2017, USDS reported to Congress that “over a 5-year period, we project our current projects will save $617 million and redirect 1,475 labor years toward higher-value work.”
Digital California should provide both a performance dashboard and annual report, in context of deliverables and financial savings, so that progress can be regularly monitored, shared and celebrated. This will ensure there is ongoing insight into progress and less of a potential for failure in the context we’ve seen in the past.
As we’ve seen with GDS and USDS, California’s potential for financial savings alone is exponential. A deeper dive into UK’s performance dashboard shows equal opportunity for delivering and scaling public digital services.
California Senator Kamala Harris raised the bar on digital leadership last week, proposing the Digital Service Act that would allocate increased funding and support to USDS and state and local governments.
“We must do more to empower our state and local governments to tap into the power of technology to provide seamless, cost-effective services for the 21st century,” said Harris. “The Digital Service Act will help harness top talent for the government, save taxpayer dollars, and put the power of technology to work on behalf of the American people.”
As the largest state in America with the fifth largest economy in the world (larger than UK), California must take the opportunity it has before us and execute a bold approach by making a GDS-like investment in its digital future. For elected officials who represent innovative constituents and organizations across many industries, doing the same for government is a no-brainer.
“One of the biggest recommendations from the digital services team in Mexico was connecting the digital services program to big, bold, public goals. It can be tempting for new digital teams to keep a low profile as they build relationships and notch small internal victories. But the strength of the organization and its sustainability in the long term will partially depend on its ability to create excitement and political wins. Make digital transformation aspirational, not just a collection of workaday best practices, and you can capture the imagination of public servants as well as citizens.”
“When Estonia started building our information society about two decades ago, there was no digital data being collected about our citizens. The general population did not have the internet or even devices with which to use it. It took great courage to invest in IT solutions and take the information technology route.”
As our governor and legislature work to determine the future of the California public services, its people are counting on high aspirations and great courage to lead them into the digital future.