GSA issues software-as-a-service request for information

Photo: White House

Photo: White House

The General Services Administration has issued a request for information related to the federal government’s use of software-as-a-service.

From the announcement:

Unified Shared Services Management (USSM), with the guidance of the Shared Services Governance Board, is seeking information from industry to understand their capability to provide standardized solutions across administrative services, as referenced in Office of Management and Budget memorandum M-16-11.

The RFI inquires about interoperable and modular approaches to delivering common technology solutions and requests feedback on the viability of the Federal Integrated Business Framework as a documentation source to inform the development of a software-as-a-service offering. The RFI also solicits input on the potential opportunities for public-private partnership funding models.

Full RFI on FedBizOps.

Neighborly inspiration from CEO Jase Wilson

Jase WilsonNeighborly CEO Jase Wilson is an inspiring entrepreneur working to change how public projects are funded. I’ve been fortunate to chat numerous time with him over the past few weeks and always leave energized and ready to tackle big problems.

I asked Jase if he could reflect on the past four years building Neighborly and share some advice to others.

What inspires you most about the work you’re doing at Neighborly?

Apart from keeping the company funded, and reiterating the vision until everyone’s sick of hearing it (then reiterating it some more), my job is to seek, attract, recruit, and cultivate unimaginably smart and passionate people. Getting to work with the Neighborly team every day is beyond electrifying.

Also, it’s an honor to be the ones modernizing access to public finance. We’re changing how public projects get created, in an era where cities new solutions to address a growing list of economic and environmental challenges. Our work translates directly into more and better public projects — schools, parks, libraries, and next generation things like neighborhood microgrids and municipal wifi — that contribute positively to the world.

It’s been four years. What’s the status of Neighborly today?

Learning to walk-jog. Patience and long view to make big change in a two century old market.

You studied cities and technology at MIT. From what you learned in academics to what you’ve applied as an entrepreneur, what’s your general commentary on cities and technology today?

The megatrend that gives me the most hope for the future is the rise of the region: urban regions — clusters of cities — continue to emerge as the new units of economic and political power. Within our lifetimes, my guess is that regional becomes the new national. We’re living through the turbulence caused by the evaporation of legitimacy, power, and relevance of the nation level, a unit of organization that no longer really suits the way the world works. We see this unraveling worldwide and in our own nation. It can be a scary thought for many since we as humans tend to be tribal and identify with nationalism in deeply emotional ways. But it’s really not a practical construct anymore. I remain hopeful that what’s emerging is a new model of empowered regions, quilt works of thriving neighborhoods stitched together by geographic proximity and mutual interests, a model in which we can help each other thrive and co-exist as a unified planet.

Tech enables and enhances the concentration of power in this clustered organization in a positive feedback loop that accelerates the transition from strong nation to strong region. Every time we draw a map showing commuter patterns using cell phone location data that could not be analyzed at scale 15 years ago, we’re confronted with how the world really works. When we autonomize commutes, we open all new regional extents via passive door-to-door commutes, furthering the regional trend. Then new high tech intra-regional transport like Hyperloop connects the dots between regions. Farming automation draws even more people from the hinterlands to the urban regions. De-centralizing production, storage, conditioning and distribution of energy and other trends all accelerate the rise of the region. Everything we’re seeing right now plays in to the rise of the region.

All of this means our work at Neighborly is of increasing importance. The public realm — the sum of all the goods we co-create and utilize tends to take place mostly at the local level. Public goods rely on public finance which is currently heavily organized around the concept of nation and states. What’s needed is a more efficient, data-driven mechanism for financing very local public projects global capital. Connecting local public projects directly to a global capital network is Neighborly in a nutshell.

What’s your advice to civic-focused startups?

You know why your mission is “civic.” When you’re talking to investors, customers, even potential recruits, be open about how you define your space. Fields like “health” and “finance” are well established industries. Being a tech startup in one of those fields is easy to talk and think about — fintech for example. But “civic” is not a defined private sector field. The term means many things. For many, it invokes ideas of philanthropy, which can create subtle but sometimes strong and entirely unnecessary frictions for you.

Top five books everyone focused on cities should read?

This is tricky and a question I’m often asked. I agree 100% with and defer to the Planetizen All Time Top 20. To it, for civic technologists specifically, I’d add a few —  Citizenville is good, Jane Jacob’s lesser celebrated Economy of Cities, Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, and for thinking really, really big about the future of the city Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.

What’s different about GovTech?

San Francisco City Hall

Building and selling products to government is hard. If you’re reading this post, I’ll assume you’ve heard the “if we only fixed procurement…” soundbite.

This post isn’t about fixing procurement, procurement is a symptom.

I’ve spent the last eight years building and selling products to governments. At the risk of oversimplifying what works in govtech, I think success comes from three factors:

  1. Founder-product-market fit
  2. Understanding zero-sum budgets
  3. Scale through social proof

Founder-product-market fit

Every sector requires companies to find product-market fit as quickly as possible. There’s not a better post than this one when it comes to the importance of product-market fit. However, government is different. It’s almost impossible to “eat your own dog food” in govtech. You can’t create a QA environment that replicates the planning and zoning counter. The only way to replicate public safety use cases is to be in the field with the folks doing the work. The inability to use-what-you-build puts enormous pressure on the founder(s) to place themselves in the environment and build a product that works.

Understanding zero-sum budgets

City budgets are a zero-sum game. Allocating dollars to a new product simultaneously forces withdrawal from something else in the budget. Your product has to be so good it entirely replaces another product or a human process. There’s a good chance that product or process you’re replacing has been in use for 25+ years. Products can’t be 10% better in government, they have to be 10x better than the incumbent. This might sound like every other sector, but risk aversion is high in government. In order to replace something in the budget, the bar for product viability isn’t minimally-viable.

Scale through social proof

Concentrated impact, either geographic or within a domain, is a common thread in successful govtech companies. To combat the inability to use your own product (highlighted above), the only way to gain understanding and thus scale is through social proof. Random smile and dial doesn’t work in govtech. People forget that selling software to non-IT departments is a new phenomenon. Most of these folks haven’t been sold software, ever. These are domain experts and only experience value through narratives, stories of similar people finding value. In the case of government, similar people means the city next door or another person that does my exact job. The danger in govtech is trying to get scale through the force of a sales operation long before product-market fit exists.

With all of that said, success in govtech is there for the taking.

The power of digital governments around the globe

Singapore's Government Chief Information Officer, and the Government Technology Agency's Deputy Chief Executive. (Photo courtesy of Cheow Hoe)

Singapore’s Government Chief Information Officer, and the Government Technology Agency’s Deputy Chief Executive. (Photo courtesy of Cheow Hoe)

With the advent of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, smart sensors and the Internet of Things, the digital and physical worlds have become more integrated than ever. While these technologies once seemed like a distant reality, they are now rapidly being adopted by mainstream consumers and a wide range of industries, from financial services to healthcare.

This new reality presents governments with a crucial decision – embrace these technologies and their potential benefit to society, or shy away from the ambiguity and complexity they bring. In cities as diverse as Columbus, Ohio and Yinchuan, China, we are witnessing how governments that digitize are able to respond more proactively and effectively to citizens’ needs. In Singapore, people are at the heart of our Smart Nation movement. We’re mustering the full resources of our institutions, citizens and companies to focus on finding innovative solutions to big, complex problems, including aging population and urban density, to bring about better lives for our citizens. But the key is to start small and dream big. There is nothing like making things happen instead of being caught in a fantasy world of endless proof of concepts.

Singapore – an island smaller than Manhattan with no natural resources – is home to an entirely urban population. This presents challenges in civic matters such as healthcare and transportation, but opens up opportunities for technological advancement. Because of our physical constraints, we’ve always looked ahead to keep our economy open and think about ways to optimise public agencies’ delivery of smart city and government digital services.

The Digital Age has provided technologies that can transform the human condition. Increasingly, we are able to leverage data to mimic human decision making, which we can then use to enhance decision making processes and to provide anticipatory services. The government needs to be proactive in placing strategic bets on the transformative potential of technology to secure our future. The new Government Technology Agency, or GovTech, is formed to lead this digital transformation from within the Singapore government and keep us at the forefront of technology.

To get a better sensing of how cities work, Singapore, Chicago, Amsterdam and many other smart cities are building new high-tech network of sensors to collect data on everything from traffic patterns and air quality to urban flooding and drainage issues. Pertinent to this is the ability to perform analytics and interpret real-time data as far as possible for the predictive maintenance of the city. And finally, visualizing these insights to help public agencies make better urban planning decisions and enhance their operations.

For example, to detect early warning signs of potential economic shocks, GovTech’s data scientists came up with the Pulse of the Economy that looks into the use of high frequency big data such as electricity consumption, public transportation, online job listings and other urban data sources to develop new indicators for better economic and urban planning. This allows us to leverage lead indicators instead of using just macro-economic data, which are essentially lag indicators. It aids in better policy planning and anticipation.

Another question that we often ask ourselves in terms of digital government is, if the Singapore government were not born as a government but as an internet company, how would we actually have designed our services? We asked our citizens what they thought about that, to better identify what it was that they want us to solve. Unlike commercial services, citizens usually come to government because they have to, not because they want to.

Two key insights were evident. Firstly, citizens told us they use a range of government digital services at key moments of their life, from getting married, buying a house to starting a family. Secondly, citizens have a deep desire to deal with one government, and not many public agencies separately. They want information that is real-time and contextually relevant to them.

With this in mind, GovTech is structuring and developing anticipatory government services, creating the digital platforms, the analytics, even the artificial intelligence in the form of the chatbots that we are experimenting to enhance citizens’ experiences of interacting with government. We call this “Moments of Life”, pushing out digital services to citizens when they most need them, so as to give them a more integrated experience.

While data and user-centric design of digital services are important, putting this information at the fingertips of citizens is key. While the government hopes to spur innovation and inspiration outside of the public sector, the idea is not to provide everything ourselves, but to really work and harness the energy and ideas of a new generation of tinkerers, makers and civic-minded citizens. This is being achieved every day and around the world through open data portals, open source technology platforms and open real-time APIs. Sparking a civic innovation movement is one of the areas we have the most work to do, as it requires the reshaping of the very role of a government.

The United Nations’ open data portal has amassed more than 60 million data points that are regularly leveraged globally by journalists, companies and people. Over 120 countries have followed suit with their own portals, up from 97 in 2014. Singapore’s open data portal data.gov.sg currently houses more than 600 government datasets from 70 public agencies. It’s also home to a Developer’s Portal that consists of real-time APIs for co-creation with citizens and businesses.

Rather than govern as a provider of public goods and services, governments that embrace technology now need to have the ability to create market platforms or enable digital communities. Let me cite a few interesting experiments that we’ve rolled out in Singapore.

GovTech developed the Beeline digital mobility platform with the Land Transport Authority, using data analytics to crowdsource commuters’ demand for transportation routes, and match them with private bus operators who will decide which routes to service. More than 32,000 route suggestions from the public have been submitted, with more than 20,000 successful matches made, improving the commuting experience of residents in Singapore.

One other meaningful digital application is the MyResponder mobile app which we have developed with the Singapore Civil Defence Force to crowdsource lifesavers that can render first aid or lend a helping hand to cardiac arrest victims within 400 meters radius, before the ambulance arrives. More than 11,000 volunteers are registered as first responders on the app, with over 8,500 activations.

Be it a choked drain or fallen tree branch, citizens do not wish to be stuck in a conundrum of which public agency to contact when faced with these municipal issues. We developed the OneService mobile app with the Municipal Services Office, empowering citizens to report these municipal issues through the app‘s photo-snap and location geo-tagging functions. This gets channelled to the right agency at the backend, and the issue gets resolved quickly with minimal disruption to citizens’ lives. More than 51,000 feedback cases have been submitted through this app.

These examples are illustrative of the fact that digital governments are powerful enablers to improve the lives of people. Digital governments make it easier for citizens to access crucial services and resources quickly and proactively. From no-filing tax services to interacting with AskJamie, the virtual intelligent asssitant that can answer queries on government websites, Singaporeans are benefiting from technology at every turn. These innovations not only reduce cost and bureaucracy of the government, but also most importantly, lead to a better citizen experience – which brings us back to the Digital Age. While it may seem like it’s about technology, it’s really about people.

Today, we are at a critical juncture in which technology is blurring the line between the physical and digital worlds, ushering in the era of the Internet of Things, machine learning, cognitive computing, artificial intelligence and more. If digital governments worldwide are proactive, not reactive, in leveraging technology and data. The Digital Age stands to transform how we live, connect and work.

At its core, that is the goal of Singapore’s Smart Nation and Digital Government.

Book: ‘How to Talk to Civic Hackers’

Civic hacker icon Mark Headd has written a book to help government officials best engage with community technologists.

The guide, How to Talk to Civic Hackers, “highlights strategies they can use to collaborate with people doing interesting and valuable work that can benefit or support the mission of government.”

The book is available at civichacking.guide.

Listen to the GovEx podcast interview with Mark discussing the book.

Hacking for Diplomacy: What we learned with the State Department

Photo: U.S. Department of State

Photo: U.S. Department of State

We just held our final week of the Hacking for Diplomacy class, teaching students entrepreneurship and “Lean Startup” principles while they engaged in national public service applying advanced technologies to solve global challenges. Seven student teams delivered their final Lessons Learned presentations documenting their intellectual journey over just 10 short weeks in front of several hundred people in person and online. And what a journey it’s been.

In this class, we partnered with sponsors in the State Department including:

  • Office of Space and Advanced Technology
  • Bureau of Political-Military Affairs
  • Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations
  • Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism
  • Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
    • Office of Assistance to Europe, Central Asia, & the Americas
    • Office of Assistance to the Near East
  • Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons

Our sponsors treated our students like serious problem solvers who could contribute unique technical skills and unfettered customer access. In exchange the sponsors got access to fresh ideas, new technology and a new perspective on serious problems.

By the end of the class our sponsors inside State had experienced a practical example of a new and powerful methodology which could help them better understand and deal with complicated international problems and apply technology where appropriate.

And finally, our students learned that they could serve their country without having to put on a uniform. Today, if college students want to give back to their country, most think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or Americorps or perhaps if you wanted to offer your technical skills, the U.S. Digital Service or the GSA’s 18F. Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the State Department, Department of Defense, Intelligence Community or other government agencies.

Lessons learned – Not a demo day

Silicon Valley folks are familiar with demo days – presentations where the message is: “Here’s how smart we are right now.” That’s nice, but it doesn’t let the audience know, “Is that how smart you were three months ago, did you get smarter or dumber? What did you learn?”

Hacking for Diplomacy Lessons Learned presentations are different. Each team presents a two-minute video to provide context about their problem and then presents for eight minutes about the Lessons Learned over their ten weeks in the class.

As an example, Team Trace worked with the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. The team was challenged to help companies push policies of responsible business lower down the supply chain. The key thing to note in this presentation is not only that the team came up with a solution, but also how in talking to 85 people, their understanding of the problem evolved, and as it did, so did their solution. (see Slides 12 and 25).

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Team Hacking CT was sponsored by Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism with the goal of deterring individuals from joining violent extremist groups. After 100 interviews, the team realized that a bottom-up approach, focusing on support for friends and family of those at risk for radicalization, might be effective.

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Getting Lean

Each of the teams used the Lean Startup methodology. For those new to Lean, the process has three key components.

First, students took the problems they got from their State Department sponsors and transformed those into what we call hypotheses.

For instance, one problem was: “We need to improve coordination among all the organizations trying to help Syrian refugees.”

That’s a big, unwieldy problem. Students had to break it down into a series of hypotheses. They had to identify who were the beneficiaries and stakeholders, and think about what specific service they were going to provide them, how they were going to get it to them and who was going to pay for it.

To help them do that, we have them map their nine critical hypotheses onto a single sheet of paper called the Mission Model Canvas.

aggregatedb-mission-model-canvas

Then, in step two, the teams got out of the classroom to test these hypotheses through interviews with people in the real world. Every team spoke to close to 100 potential “beneficiaries,” partners and stakeholders including NGOs, tech company executives, supply chain managers, foreign service officers in embassies around the world, and even refugees.

While the students were interviewing, they also employed the third piece of the Lean methodology: building the solution incrementally and iteratively. These solutions, called Minimal Viable Products, are what allow the teams to become extremely agile and responsive.

As teams talk to stakeholders they gather evidence to either validate, invalidate or modify their hypotheses. If they find out that their assumptions are wrong (and almost all do,) they Pivot, that is, they make fundamental changes to their hypotheses, instead of blindly proceeding forward simply executing a plan. This ability to gather data, build and test MVPs, and then change course is what gives Lean it’s tremendous speed and agility to deliver rapid solutions that are needed and wanted.

As an example, Team Aggregate DB was working with the State Department Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO). CSO helps embassies and diplomats to visualize, understand, and stabilize conflict. The team’s challenge was to get helps embassies and diplomats get more information about informal leader networks. Getting out of the building and talking to 87 people gave the team got a firsthand view of the downside when an embassy does not have access to the right local contacts. (Slides 3-9)

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

As they developed MVPs, our students took these solutions out into the real world for feedback. At first the solutions were nothing more than drawings, wireframes or PowerPoint slides. As they came to understand their problems more deeply, they refined their solutions into the final products we saw.

h4dip-mvp

For example, Team 621 – Fatal Journeys worked with the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. The team’s challenge: how to get more data on missing or perished refugees. In this presentation, note how the team’s understanding of the problem evolved over the course of talking to 88 people. They realized there was a missing link between key stakeholders that limited identification of perished refugees and prevented emotional and legal closure for their families. The team pivoted three times as they gained deeper and deeper insight into their problem. With each pivot, their solution radically changed. (Their first pass of problem/solution understanding is on Slides 1-29, but then they get additional insight in slides 36-50. Finally, slides 51-64 is their third and final iteration).

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Hacking for Diplomacy was profiled this week in the L.A. Times. We’ve also had L.A. Times> Beijing bureau chief Julie Makinen, who is on a JSK journalism fellowship at Stanford, helping coach students this quarter on interviewing and research techniques. Julie has been sharing her impressions of the class on this blog. Here’s her last installment:


In the Netflix age, suspense is an increasingly rare commodity. If we’re intrigued by an hour of “House of Cards,” we need not delay gratification – we can just queue up the next episode and push play. But following Stanford’s Hacking for Diplomacy class over the last 10 weeks has been like watching a TV drama the old-fashioned way. There were cliffhangers every time, and you had to wait seven days to find out what would happen next.

The class, which meets just once a week but requires massive outside work, is run not as a traditional lecture where professors drone on in front of passive students — just the opposite. It’s the students standing up in front, discussing what they’ve found out in the past seven days, what progress they’ve made, what obstacles they’ve run smack into. The teachers sit in the back row and lob questions and critiques forth — sometimes very direct critiques. That format keeps students and teachers alike on the edge of their seats.

Conflicts and misunderstandings within student teams — and between students and sponsors — cropped up as the students tried to learn about the State Department, their sponsors problem, and Lean Startup methodology all at once. Students, teachers, and interviewees said surprising, intriguing, even stunning things. Some days, you could see teams going off the rails, but instead of just shouting at your screen, “No, don’t go down that alley!” a professor would actually speak up from the back with something blunt like, “You’re way off track, and we’re firing your idea.”

And just when you thought a team had struck upon a brilliant notion for a product, they’d report back during the next session that everyone they put it in front of hated it. I started looking forward to each Thursday at 4:30 p.m. like my parents looked forward to watching “Dragnet” as kids, because the suspense was killing me.

Thursday’s season finale did not disappoint. Teams that just two or three weeks ago seemed to be foundering pulled off some amazing comebacks.

Take Team Exodus, which had spent a substantial part of the quarter focused on how to match private companies seeking to assist Syrian refugees with NGOs working in the field. Late in the term, the students scrapped that idea after finding competitors who were already deeply engaged in that space. They did a major pivot and decided to concentrate directly on refugees as customers — building on all they had learned during their first eight weeks of interviewing and research.

In week 9, they decided to build an AI chatbot on Facebook’s Messenger platform to allow refugees to ask questions like, “Where can I get clothing?” The bot will tap into a network of NGOs to source answers. A very basic prototype, built primarily by team member Kian Katanforoosh, a master’s student in computer science and management science & engineering, is already up and running.

On the eve of Thursday’s class, team members Katie Joseff and Berk Coker had a call with the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, and learned that the organization was very interested in working with the students to bring an Arabic chatbot to the field, most likely starting in Jordan.

“At the end, our team kind of came out of the weeds,” said Joseff, an undergrad majoring in human biology. “We finally got to the thing that Steve Blank talks about – where you can see the whites of a customer’s eyes and they just really want the product you’re talking about.”

Team Exodus: Coordinating information to better serve refugees

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Watching the students’ process and progress was an eye-opener even for many State Department sponsors and private-sector mentors. Team Space Evaders, who in week 7 seemed to be vying for the title of Team Whose Proposed Products Generated the Most Yawns from Potential Customers, had an “ah-ha” moment and decided instead of focusing on tracking objects already in space, they’d pivot and concentrate on objects that will be launched in the future.

They’re proposing a “debris footprint” that would rate satellites before they’re sent into orbit on how much space junk they could generate. The team hopes that this could lead to international design standards to reduce space debris.

“They had a fundamental insight – don’t track ’em, solve it before they even get into space,” said Jonathan Margolis, deputy assistant secretary of State for science, space and health who came all the way from Washington to meet with the team and sit in on the class in Week 9. “It’s a reconceptualization of a problem we’ve really been struggling with.”

Team members Dave Gabler, a master’s student in business and public policy with an Air Force background, and Matthew Kaseman, an Army vet and freshman in aerospace engineering, said the next step is to produce a white paper that fleshes out the mathematical formulas that could underpin a ratings system, then take that to academic and industry conferences. “That would help start a public discussion and push the debate,” said Gabler.

“The math is probably the easy part,” said Pablo Quintanilla, a former Foreign Service Officer and current head of public policy for Asia for Salesforce, who served as mentor for the Space Evaders team. “There’s so much more to the behavioral side – who in the international space community will adopt this?”

Quintanilla said that working with Space Evaders drove home for him the merits of forming diverse teams to tackle problems. Besides Gabler and Kaseman, the student team included Kate Boudreau, a junior majoring in biomedical computation, and Tyler Dammann, a junior in computer science.

“This cross-functionality and working across disciplines is really effective,” Quintanilla said. “I feel like this is living proof that you should work everywhere like this.”

Team Space Evaders: Reducing space junk

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Professor Jeremy Weinstein, a co-instructor for the class who recently served as deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, acknowledged that 10 weeks is a really short time frame for the students to make any meaningful impact. But unlike an internship, where a lone student “plugs into an existing bureaucratic hierarchy and rules,” the Hacking for Diplomacy students had the advantage of being able to work in teams — and approach the problem more as outsiders.

“The students don’t have to play by the same rules [as insiders]. They can ask the non-PC questions,” said Weinstein. “To be ignorant of the rules is a blessing at times — if you can do it respectfully.”

Getting students to have a healthy appreciation for how government policy is made — sometimes painfully slowly — is part of the educational process. And so perhaps is getting bureaucrats to be more open to fresh ideas. “There’s not going to be a flip of the switch” in State as a result of this class, Weinstein said. “There is some skepticism. But I think more broadly, we’ve won some people over.”

Thursday’s wrap-up session attracted a diverse audience, including representatives from leading Silicon Valley tech companies as well as diplomats from France, Britain and Denmark. Susan Alzner, head of the U.N. Non-Governmental Liaison Service’sNew York office, said after watching the student presentations, she wants to take the customer discovery and interview methodology back to her agency.

“The U.N. has lots of small teams of people who often believe they already know the solution to a problem. … And the U.N. does way too much consultation digitally. Interviews are critical. It’s so elaborate to see these students doing 100 interviews to understand a problem, but it’s so important to orient yourself before making a plan to do something.”

Team Hacking 4 Peacekeeping: Better data on, and decision-making about, peacekeeping forces

If you can’t see the video click here.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

Weinstein noted that scaling up Hacking for Diplomacy may not be as easy as expanding Hacking for Defense, simply because “there are millions of people who work in the Department of Defense… while the size of the State Department foreign service corps is smaller than the total number of people who play in military bands.” That means there are fewer people who can serve as sponsors.

At the same time, the class could tap a wider array of sponsor organizations. “Scale maybe has to look different — we can look to the [State Department], but also UNHCR, the foreign ministry of the U.K., other international organizations,” Weinstein said. “You have to think of a different array of partners.”

Most of the State Department sponsors for this year’s class, Weinstein noted, were not political appointees but career foreign service officers or career civil servants.

“They are the glue that holds the agency together and they are key to getting anything implemented in government. And so the buy-in is there,” he said. “But they also need permission; they need a blessing to experiment with radically different ideas. And you need political cover in these bureaucracies to do this kind of work.”

“I hope,” he added, “we’ll have that cover in a subsequent administration. More than cover. Endorsement. Enthusiasm. Excitement.”


Our teaching team

Like the students’ efforts, the teaching of this class was also a team project. I was joined by Jeremy Weinstein, former deputy to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a Stanford professor of political science; Zvika Krieger, the State Department’s representative to Silicon Valley and senior advisor for technology and innovation; retired U.S. Army Col. Joe Felter, who co-created Hacking for Defense and is a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford; and Steve Weinstein, chief executive of MovieLabs who teaches entrepreneurship at Stanford and UC Berkeley.

h4dip-instructors

Our teaching assistants were Shazad Mohamed, Sam Gussman and Roland Gillah. We were fortunate to get a team of seven mentors currently or formerly served in the State Department and selflessly volunteered their time to help coach the teams. Each team also got a mentor from the tech industry who helped guide them through creating their final products. Of course, huge thanks to the Stanford students who gave their all through this class.

Going forward

While our previous Hacking for Defense class gave us a hint that doing the same for Diplomacy would work, we’re a little stunned about how well this class with the State Department went. A surprising number of students have decided to continue working on foreign policy projects after this class with the State Department or with NGO’s. Other colleges and universities have raised their hands, and said they want to offer Hacking for Diplomacy or potentially a USAID Hacking for Development class at their school.

Meanwhile our Hacking for Defense class continues to scale through H4Di.org the non profit we set up to curate the problems from our sponsors (JIDO, ARCYBER, AWG, USMC, NSA, AFNWC, SOCOM, 75th Ranger Regiment, USTRANSCOM, Cyber Force Protection Brigade, National Defense University, and the Center for Technology and National Security Policy). And H4Di.org supports the universities teaching the class this year: Stanford, UC San Diego, Georgetown, Air Force, University of Pittsburgh, James Madison University, Boise State, and RIT.

If you’re interested in offering Hacking for Diplomacy (or Defense) in your school, or if you’re a sponsor in a federal agency interested in solving problems with speed and urgency, join us at our next H4D educators class January 17-19th at Georgetown.

Lessons learned

  • Our sponsors inside State saw examples of a new and powerful methodology – Lean which could help them better understand and deal with complicated international problems
  • Lean offers State speed and agility to deliver rapid solutions that are needed and wanted
  • Our students learned that they could serve their country without having to put on a uniform
  • Other universities are willing to have their students work on diplomacy and development problems
  • The class was a success

(This post is a continuation of a series. See all the posts about Hacking for Diplomacy here.)

The long tail of political mail

Left to right: Eric Jaye, Bergen Kenny, Danielle Winterhalter (Photo: SpeakEasy Political)

Left to right: Eric Jaye, Bergen Kenny, Danielle Winterhalter (Photo: SpeakEasy Political)

SpeakEasy Political wants to make it easier for everyone to run for elected office.

Danielle Winterhalter, SpeakEasy co-founder and director of strategic partnerships, shares how they’re addressing a fundamental aspect of lowering the barrier to entry, especially when it comes to political (snail) mail, which is still more relevant than you might think.

What’s the SpeakEasy Political elevator pitch?

Believe it or not, I’ve actually delivered this in a couple elevators – – it goes a little like this:

Speakeasy is a new tool that leverages technology to cut costs in the creation and distribution of political mail.

Our founding team is group of political consultants who were tired of seeing good candidates and causes priced out of modern elections. So, we built a platform that affords campaigns and organizations the opportunity to use professionally designed, pre-built direct mail templates – paired with their own content and data powered by the VAN & PDI – to produce targeted, persuasive messaging. On time and under budget.

SpeakEasy makes consultant-caliber communication tools affordable for small budget campaigns. By lowering the cost barriers to participation, we provide the working mom running for school board, or the small business owner interested in serving on county commission, top of the ticket resources at a price point that won’t dissuade good people from running for office.

We believe that by cutting the costs of proven voter communication tools, we can amplify the voices of candidates and causes with tights budgets and limited resources.

What’s the back story on why you started?

Our founding team came out of Storefront Political Media, a full service political consulting firm that works with democratic candidates and progressive organizations throughout California, and across the country. We loved the clients we were working with, but we were also in the position of having to turn away a lot of first-time, local candidates who didn’t have the budgets to afford the services of a consulting firm.

As the cost of running campaigns continuously increases each cycle – and as major conservative donors, like the Koch brothers, funnel their dollars into down ballot races – we realized that too many folks weren’t able to get their message to voters, and Democratic candidates and progressive causes were actively being priced out of running competitive campaigns. (Now – there will always be races that need the full court press services of firms like Storefront, but we wanted to create a tool that would help elevate local candidates and budget-conscious organizations.)

Being in San Francisco, and surrounded by the influence of Silicon Valley, Bergen Kenny – our CEO – knew there had to be a way technology could help solve this problem. After her son was born, she was making her baby announcements on  a template based invitation platform called Minted.com and thought – “why the heck don’t we do this for political mail”?

Eric Jaye, the founder and CEO of Storefront Political, helped develop the concept and thousands of hours, and one political cycle later, we’ve  had the privilege of doing work from California to North Carolina and have an established proof of concept as we look ahead to 2017.

Why is political snail mail still relevant?

Eric Jaye actually wrote a great piece in Campaigns & Elections magazine addressing this exact question. As he points out, it really comes down to a couple main proof points:

The limited reach of digital drives use of direct mail

As more campaigns adopt the precision of cookie-matched digital advertising, it’s becoming clear that direct mail is a needed companion to these programs.

Given the limited time frame of most political campaigns, even a strong digital buy only reaches about 70-80 percent of the total available audience. That means, even a well-run, adequately funded digital program might only reach a little more than half the total voter audience.

This is where direct mail can help address that oversight in reach – with mail, you can send directly to the homes of the voters you choose, and according to USPS studies, nearly 70 percent of recipients at least scan-read their mail.

Sure, a piece of mail is more expensive on a per view basis, but nothing is more costly than leaving up to half of your targeted voter universe out of your communications program.

The barrier to entry is low

Cutting a TV ad is expensive, placing a pre-roll buy is complicated, and even the best social media campaigns are managed by professionals – but as do-it-yourself direct mail services come online, it’s becoming cheaper and easier for candidates who don’t have large campaign coffers to reach voters at home.

Our clients can create their professional quality mail piece after their kids go to bed, and instead of having to make a trip to the county clerk or a call to a data vendor – they can choose their voter targets with a few clicks. We think that bringing design and voter targeting together has the power to transform the market, allowing candidates and causes to forgo consultants and run their own programs.

Especially in local races, direct mail remains a salient form of voter communications – we just want to make it more attainable for Democratic candidates and organizations.

Any inspiring examples?

We’re actually incredibly fortunate to be inspired by so many of our clients and organizational partners – we get to work with such talented folks, who are selflessly dedicated to their communities.

One great example of a pretty inspiring candidate is Amber Childress – who is here in the Bay Area. Amber has a busy professional career, but as her young son started in the Alameda School District, she wanted to apply her professional skills to the local school board as a way of being more involved in his education.

Being a working mom, Amber didn’t have dozens of hours a week to spend on the phone dialing for dollars raising the money it takes to hire a consultant to run your mail program. But, after work one day, Amber logged on to SpeakEasy, created her piece, picked her targets, and in just a few hours – we were running it through the production process.

By telling her story to voters, Amber was able to unseat a two term incumbent and won her race by just over 800 votes. I think Amber’s story is so iconic of what we’re trying to do at SpeakEasy – build a tool that allows good folks to tell their story, save their budget, and get more involved with their communities.

What’s your advice to those who want to run for elected office?

Please do it.

Please.

Running for office is intimidating, and scary, and cumbersome – but there are so many fantastic organizations and tools out there to support first time candidates. Groups like Emerge train women to run and win local office, The New American Leaders Project focuses on supporting candidates of color in their campaigns, and local labor organizations and county parties all have candidate training infrastructures to support you in your run. Or call us – we talk to folks all the time who are looking to start their campaigns. Sometimes, a thoughtful conversation about first steps is all you need to get over the intimidation hurdle – and we are more than happy to offer a little advice.

Personally, I think that one of the biggest takeaways of the 2016 election is that we must get more folks involved in the political process, at every level. In order to prevent another presidential election stacked with candidates with terribly low approval ratings – we have to start getting more people engaged in their school boards, county commissions, water boards and city councils. We need to intentionally build the bench in order to instigate greater electoral participation.

So, don’t wait for your neighbor to do it – get involved. Run. We’ll help.

How can others learn more about SpeakEasy Political?

I’m so glad you asked! To learn more, you can visit our website at www.SpeakEasyPolitical.com, connect with us on the Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or shoot me an email at danielle@speakeasypolitical.com. We also have a quick little explainer video here, if you’re curious to the mechanics of the platform.

Federal government progress in IT reform

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a status report on federal government technology reform progress, and it’s an insightful read more than anything on the the lack of synchronization between agencies and GAO.

The report is part of ongoing modernization efforts reviews related to the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, enacted in December 2014 to hold agencies accountable for cutting costs and reducing redundancies in federal technology projects.

FITARA addresses seven areas of federal IT:

  • Federal data center consolidation initiative
  • Enhanced transparency and improved risk management
  • Agency CIO authority enhancements
  • Portfolio review
  • Expansion of training and use of IT acquisition cadres
  • Government-wide software purchasing program
  • Maximizing the benefit of the federal strategic sourcing initiative

Because of the seeming discrepancies between what agencies have (or haven’t) reported and what GAO has assessed, it’s difficult to determine what’s truly the state of federal government IT. Nonetheless, the report is insightful in that it gives a great overview of the FITARA objectives and how success is being measured.

From GAO Director Information Technology Management Issues David Powner in his testimony to the House of Representatives Subcommittees on Government Operations and Information Technology, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:

These and other failed IT projects often suffered from a lack of disciplined and effective management, such as project planning, requirements definition, and program oversight and governance. In many instances, agencies had not consistently applied best practices that are critical to successfully acquiring IT investments.

Federal IT projects have also failed due to a lack of oversight and governance. Executive-level governance and oversight across the government has often been ineffective, specifically from chief information officers (CIO). For example, we have reported that not all CIOs had the authority to review and approve the entire agency IT portfolio and that CIOs’ authority was limited.

Full report: Improved Implementation of Reform Law Is Critical to Better Manage Acquisitions and Operations

Passive intelligence for government

Every government wants to use data to make better decisions.

This desire and need is being supporting both from within government and by a handful of interesting companies like SmartProcure, Mark43 and GovInvest. These companies provide data and platforms that make purchasing, public safety and pension decisions much more informed.

The challenge for both companies and internal tool development is the same: changing user behaviors. Even with the very best products, changing behavior is really fucking hard. Raise your hand if you want another website or app to log into every day? Bueller? Bueller?

From a product perspective the fundamental challenge is straightforward: create enough value for consistent use. However, government presents its own set of unique challenges: Elected officials turn over, political will matters, and legacy vendors have stranglehold contracts.

That being said, there’s a giant opportunity for apps that work while government officials sleep. What that means is technology working behind the scenes to deliver practical and insightful information long before it surfaces through traditional mechanisms. How does this all happen? Passive intelligence and delivery applications. An everyday consumer example of this is the brilliant, slightly creepy, time-to-work notification from Google Maps. As I leave for work and hit the end of my driveway, I’m provided with an estimated time to get to the office.

This is a classic example of low user investment and high user value. The app does the hard work and only notifies you at the exact moment you should care. Consuming the information makes you a maps user, without forcing you to open maps. Wouldn’t you love for your city council member or Mayor to get similar notifications about city operations?

I can think of hundreds of use cases across all of government. From public safety, to infrastructure, to changing demographics. In a world where consumers demand passive intelligence, why aren’t we building for elected officials as if they are also consumers of useful, intelligent data?

It’s entirely possible that there are apps out there that already do what I described. If there are, I would love to learn more. It strikes me as one of the most opportune places for govtech founders to be spending their time.

Transforming digital government

Photo: The White House

Photo: The White House

Earlier this year, 18F released a preliminary report on “what makes modern digital practices ‘stick’ within a government entity.”

The findings provide an excellent overview of what constitutes digital government transformation, challenges and best practices for implementation.

From the report:

Characteristics

  1. People at all levels feel connected to the agency’s mission, have a sense of purpose, and are empowered with the autonomy to act on that purpose.
  2. The agency chooses and manages technology effectively in the service of its larger mission.
  3. The agency is capable of and committed to practicing continuous improvement.

Barriers

  • Extreme technical debt, heavy enough to prevent small engineering teams from choosing their tools and doing rapid, iterative releases.
  • Difficulty concretizing the benefits of transformation. We don’t say quantifying, because that’s the problem: many benefits are clear, but qualitative in nature. This makes it hard to get buy-in for ongoing work.
  • Teams that can’t make project decisions without leadership approval. This costs time and effort for both management and staff, and makes it hard for transformative practices to become the norm.
  • Failure to connect directly to users (whether they’re employees or the public). It’s harder to muster the will to seek out the most impactful practices when you don’t have a picture of the impacted people in your mind.

Best practices

  • Establishing constant feedback loops with users, often created by early, somewhat risky releases. These are powerful drivers of engagement at every possible level of the organization.
  • Building cross-functional teams of substantial duration. Subject matter experts working side by side with technical specialists for months or years rather than weeks, and all being treated as full project team members.
  • Using community organizing techniques to bring staff on board (like monthly meetings, office hours, councils). When it comes down to it, transformation is a long process of getting people on board and supporting them in hard work. This takes non-judgmental spaces to learn, celebrate small and large wins, and get support from teammates and management.
  • Referring to authoritative guidance, like the TechFAR Handbook, FITARA, the Open Data Policy (OMB Memorandum M-13-13), and the U.S. Digital Services Playbook, helps tech-savvy managers make non-technical leadership comfortable allowing experiments in new practices.

Full report: “Best practices in government digital transformation