Bryan Sivak

HHS seeks entrepreneurs for year-long fellowships

Applications for the Department of Health & Human Services HHS Entrepreneurs program are now open to innovators interested in working for a year-long stint alongside federal government employees on “high-risk, high-reward projects.”

“The ideal HHS Entrepreneur is a passionate expert in problem solving equipped with modern tools who is ready to shake government up, push the boundaries of the bureaucracy and act as agents of the IDEA Lab to transform the culture of a large organization,” writes HHS Chief Technology Officer Bryan Sivak on the HHS Idea Lab blog.

Projects include:

Created in 2010 and originally called the HHS Innovation Fellows Program, HHS Entrepreneurs was established “in response to difficulties in finding expertise and unique skill sets necessary to solve some of the critical challenges we face in health, health care, and the delivery of human services.” The program was renamed HHS Entrepreneurs in 2012.

Application deadline is July 16. Apply here.

HHS Entrepreneurs Overview

The openwashing of

Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Perhaps the old saw “lipstick on a pig” is the best description for the information technology fiasco that was on October 1, 2013.

A project hyped in open government circles for its innovative content delivery architecture and use of open source frameworks became almost unusable for the first week of the launch, as the beautiful website failed more often than not when clicking through to the “Log in” link.

Or maybe the best way to describe the rollout of the site is “openwashing.”

Behind a thin veneer of Jekyll, a simple yet-elegant GitHub repository and a hot boutique consulting firm, was upon launch a bloated and badly designed project reportedly led by a giant government contractor.

In March, Development Seed, the brilliant DC team behind MapBox and active on projects such as the Google Election Center, was touting the initial site as “completely new and open source.”

“We’re going to build it and then buy insurance through it,” the firm’s co-founder said in a June profile of the project. Development Seed reposted parts of that profile on its blog, including a key quote from Bryan Sivak, the Health and Human Services chief technology officer:

“The goal is get people enrolled. A step to that goal is to build a health insurance marketplace. It is so much better to build it in a way that’s open, transparent and enables updates.”

But last week, as angry reports flooded out about folks unable to navigate the sign-in and marketplace features of, HHS and its subagency, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, weren’t commenting on what went wrong. On Friday, Reuters reported that CGI, a sprawling professional services contractor out of Canada that delivers everything from payroll setup to websites and turns up in $1.15 billion in contracts with a simple search on, was responsible for the site.

Greenwashing describes misleading and deceptive practices meant to “green up” corporations and their business practices to gain public approval. Green PR has gained popularity along with public support for the environment, so I guess it’s to the open government movement’s credit that we regularly see openwashing at all levels of government (read here for a thorough critique of openwashing in government).

Openwashing in government is spin that deceptively promotes IT projects and policies as “transparent” and “innovative” when actual practices and spending are not.

It’s openwashing when President Obama claims his is the “most transparent administration in history” while ushering in an era of ubiquitous government-sponsored digital spying on private citizens and regularly rejecting Freedom of Information Act requests.

It’s openwashing when the mayor of San Francisco gives large tax breaks to the portfolio companies of one of his biggest campaign backers and calls it “tech policy.”

And it’s openwashing when the tech head of a giant federal agency rolls into SXSW talking about innovation while the guts of his biggest web property are rotten on launch.

Former DC CTO Sivak discusses tenure, changing the culture of government

Bryan Sivak

Personal Democracy Forum’s TechPresident recently held an excellent PdF Network call with former Washington, DC, Chief Technology Officer Bryan Sivak titled Digital DC- How to Create a New Culture of Digital Government. Sivak discusses his time in office, ideas and challenges around changing the culture of government, and the politics of transition.


“My view of the job was to point the ship in a very specific direction and make course corrections along the way as things came up. The folks that are pulling the oars, the ones that are out there doing the work, are the ones I think have the best ideas about ways to make various processes and products more efficient and better. A big part of my job was to provide air cover if the ideas didn’t work out or needed to be tweaked if something went wrong. I really had to make it not only OK to fail but to celebrate rapid and cheap failure as successes as opposed to losses.”

With regards to his next career move, Sivak is currently reviewing options:

“My heart is probably on the entrepreneur side … because I love building things from scratch, creating new and interesting things out of whole cloth, but at the same time, there’s so much opportunity to do good in the public sector and bring some of these interesting ideas to the table. If you do find the right elected official work for, the world is your oyster. You can make a huge amount of difference in a short period of time.”

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Gov 2.0 Hero: Bryan Sivak

Bryan SivakBryan Sivak (Twitter) is Chief Technology Officer for the District of Columbia, promoting open data and open government initiatives, from projects like TrackDC to the city’s adoption of Open311 as a citizen service platform.

How did you get to Gov 2.0?

A very broad question indeed. I guess the real answer is that I’ve been about Gov 2.0 since before the term (which I’m not a *huge* fan of) was coined and long before I entered the public sector. As long as I can remember I’ve been involved with technology, and many of the ideas I’ve had and some that I’ve messed around with have involved leveraging technology to make the world a better place. The greatest thing about this job is that it gives me the opportunity to actually effect change on a broad yet tangible scale, both with respect to internal process innovation and external service delivery. And I get to ride around on firetrucks!

What are the challenges of your role as DC CTO and how do you deal with them?

I’ve only been in the role for a little more than six months so I’m sure I haven’t come across the full set of challenges, but I can give you a couple of tidbits. I think the biggest challenge with any large, well-established organization is the cultural resistance to change. If an organization has grown up for many years with a certain mindset, it’s going to take a long time for that mindset to shift and the larger the organization, the harder that is to accomplish. This is probably true for pretty much any Government around the world but one thing that’s fantastic about the Fenty administration (albeit based on my limited experience) is the willingness and freedom to try new things and take some chances. I’ve had some radical ideas (for Government) since I’ve been here and I actually have the opportunity to put them in motion to see if I can help build a better mousetrap.

Having said that, ask me the question in another six months and I might have a totally different answer for you.

What’s most interesting to you about the open government movement?

Let’s start with what’s least interesting to me: smartphone applications that leverage data to help someone do something. Second least interesting (and probably most blasphemous): transparency and accountability. Before everyone at Sunlight declares an intifada on me, however, let me explain what I mean by that. Transparency and accountability are the watchwords of the open government movement. It’s a given that as the movement increases and picks up steam, with every new data set that is released and every federal agency and state and local jurisdiction that adopts an open government policy, these things will continue. And they are important. But they are not the motivating cry that is going to kick government employees into action. Culture change has to come first.

And that brings me to the point I find most interesting: that there’s a huge community of non-government workers out there who are all motivated to take time out of their busy schedules to leverage their skills for the greater good. Leveraging this community to build iPhone apps is dramatically underutilizing this resource. I’m interested in seeing the big brains turn to solving the internal problems of government which will have a very wide reaching effect. Stay tuned for some intriguing developments on this…

What resources, books, blogs, apps or Websites do you recommend to others?

This is neither new nor interesting but I have to admit that I’m getting a huge amount of value out of Twitter (and our internal Yammer implementation) lately. I don’t follow too many people but the ones I have decided to follow all act as a phenomenal filter for interesting news and new developments, and some really interesting thoughts have been sparked for me from a random tweet (and “yam”) here or there. For the first time in my life, I don’t have time to read the news or blogs, and lately my book consumption has been declining rapidly, so Twitter has been keeping me up-to-date when I have a moment to check the feed.

In terms of blogs, I’ll just give you one — I actually really like Andrea DeMaio’s writing. I respect the contrarian opinion, even if I don’t always agree. Okay, two — I’m a closet (okay, not so closeted) gadget geek so I do admit to sneaking a peek at Engadget and it’s cousins from time to time.

Just because I’ve recently read it, I highly recommend Dan Pink’s book Drive to everyone. It’s a tough concept for many people to swallow but I’m completely bought in. For something which is on the surface completely unrelated to open government, everyone on the planet should read Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories. His works are applicable in some way to nearly everything in life (yes, including open government), and are completely mind blowing.

What’s your 3-word open government motto?

How about a range of mottos, of different lengths:

Two words: Question everything!
Three words: Take some chances!
Four words: Start small, fail cheap.
Five words: Don’t be motivated by fear.

I feel like I should make that into a Haiku of some sort.

A ‘glass half full’ view of government app contests

An increasing number of people are starting to suggest that the concept of the “app contest” (where governments challenge developers to build civic applications) is getting a bit long in the tooth.

There have been lots of musings lately about the payoff for governments that hold such contests and the long term viability of individual entries developed for these contests. Even Washington DC – the birthplace of the current government app contest craze – seems the be moving beyond the framework it has employed not once, but twice to engage local developers:

“I don’t think we’re going to be running any more Apps for Democracy competitions quite in that way,” says Bryan Sivak, who became the district’s chief technology officer in 2009. Sivak calls Apps for Democracy a “great idea” for getting citizen software developers involved with government, but he also hints that the applications spun up by these contests tend to be more “cool” than useful to the average city resident.

App contests abound

This view is starting to crystallize against the backdrop of an ever greater number of app contests being held. At the recent Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington DC, Peter Corbett of iStrategy Labs (who helped launch the first government app contest in DC) gave a presentation that listed several dozen governments around the globe that had recently completed an app contest or were scheduled to soon start one.

And the biggest app contest to date – being sponsored by the State of California – is slated to begin soon. (Two fringe technology companies that you’ve probably never heard of – Google and Microsoft – are set to partner with the Golden State for this 800 pound gorilla of government app contests.)

So if app contests are being used in more and more places, and the size and scope of these contests keeps growing, what’s with all the hand wringing of late?

Lessons learned from app contests

My take on app contests is not an unbiased one. I’ve been a competitor in three different app contests (the original Apps for Democracy, the original Apps for America, and the NYC Big Apps competition) and was recognized for my work in them. Outside of contests, I’ve build applications using open government data and APIs for the cities of Toronto and San Francisco, and for the New York State Senate.

Clearly I am a supporter of the concept of the government app contest.

Having said that, though, I do think that those taking a more skeptical view of app contests are asking some important questions. The government app contest has come a long way since Vivek Kundra was in the driver’s seat in the DC technology office. It’s time to start asking how app contests can be improved.

But before we move on to that discussion, it is worth noting the lessons that have been learned over the last two years or so from government app contests.

First, governments and citizens benefit when high value, high quality data sets are released by governments that are in machine readable formats, easily consumed by third party applications. Believe it or not, there is still debate in many places on this point. App contests prove the theory that publishing open government data provides tangible benefits.

Second, app contests prove that it is possible to engage and excite both developers and high level elected officials about open government data. The cause of open government can’t be anything but well served when these two groups are excited about it, and appealing to both successfully in equal measure is usually very challenging.

Third, and maybe most importantly, government app contests provide sort of a “petri dish” for government officials to see how government data might be used. They let governments solicit ideas from the private sector about the different ways that open data can be used in a manner that is low risk and low cost. Some of the proposed uses of government data that emerge from these contests – whether its tweeting a recorded message to your Congressman, or using an IM client to browse campaign finance data – might never be considered by governments but for them running an app contest.

These lessons aside, there are those who contend that the existence of app contest entries that have languished (or even been abandoned altogether) after a contest is over suggests that an app contest didn’t work well (or as well as it should have). I don’t think this is necessarily the case.

Look at it this way; once a government has decided to publish open data sets and enable the development of one single app by an outside developer, the marginal cost of the next app (from the perspective of government) is essentially zero.

Once a data set has been put into a machine readable format and staged for download so that it can be used by a developer or third party, what is the cost of the next download? Or the next 50, or 100? Essentially nothing.

The road to tech startup profitability and success is a long and hard one, and it’s littered with the hollowed out husks of ideas (some very bad, some very good) that for one reason or another just don’t make it.

Should we be overly concerned that the dynamic of government app contest entries is essentially the same as it is for any other sort of technology startup project? Personally, I don’t think so.

Making app contests better

I do however, think there are some things that government app contests organizers can do a better job on.

Most notably, government engagement with app developers over the long-term has proved to be somewhat challenging. Gunnar Hellekson of Red Hat has observed the same phenomenon:

“..I would think that one of the desired outcomes [of an app contest] was an ongoing community of developers that are producing and maintaining applications like this — whether it’s for love, money, or fame. It would be a shame to see hard work like this die on the vine because we’ve lost the carrot of a cash prize.”

I don’t think this is an issue with developers necessarily – I know there is still lots of excitement around the data sets that have served as the foundation for app contents that are now over. I think the issue is that governments do not always have a plan for post-contest developer engagement.

Once the prizes are given out, and the award ceremony is over, there are no plans or strategies in place to keep developers engaged over the long haul. I do not believe this is an issue of money – not every developer is looking for a cash prize, and there are some good examples of government agencies (MassDOT and BART among them) who do a pretty good job of keeping developers engaged without contests.

I also think that a greater emphasis could be placed in app contests on developing reusable components (as opposed to user-facing solutions) that can be released as open source software and used by anyone to consume data or interact with a government API. I’m talking specifically about things like open source libraries for interacting with the Open311 API – tools and libraries specifically designed to make it easier to use open government data.

The easier it is to use government data and APIs the more people will do it, and the more development of reusable components as a by product of app contest, the less angst there will be about projects that don’t remain viable long-term. If one of the requirements of entry is the use (or reuse) of common components, even contest entries that fizzle out down the road will have made a tangible contribution to the open data effort.

I think with a few simple changes, app contests can continue to be used as an effective tool by governments to encourage the development of cutting edge applications powered by “democratized” government data.