Denise Turner Roth

Phaedra Chrousos retrospects federal government digital service

Photo: General Services Administration Office of Communications

Photo: General Services Administration Office of Communications

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

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

I asked Chrousos to share some parting thoughts.

Tell us about yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And government of the future?

It’s pretty simple.

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the biggest hurdle?

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

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

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

And how are you addressing this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connect with Chrousos on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Superpublic wants to supercharge municipal government innovation

City Innovate CEO Kamran Saddique

City Innovate CEO Kamran Saddique

Earlier this week, the City Innovate Foundation was joined by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, U.S. General Services Administration Administrator Denise Turner Roth and the U.S. Department of Commerce to announce a first-of-its-kind Innovation lab to solve urban problems and scale solutions at 50 United Nations Plaza — the birthplace of the U.N.

The 5,000 sq. ft. lab Superpublic unites under the same roof for the first time innovation teams from the private industry, federal, state and city government agencies and from universities. City Innovate Foundation staff will coordinate the activity of member organizations and put on programming that builds capacity among members to solve problems, prototype solutions and create innovative approaches to policies that accelerate change.

City Innovate CEO Kamran Saddique sat down with GovFresh to share how Superpublic will work and what’s next for the innovation lab down the hall from 18F.

Give us the 140-character elevator pitch.

Superpublic is a platform for public, private, and non-profit sectors to work together to address the most pressing challenges facing cities.

What problem(s) does Superpublic solve for government or residents/citizens?

To start, we expect to work on three main problems:

Digital services in government: More than ever before, residents now expect services to be available online. The development of new digital services is an opportunity to rethink how we deliver services to ensure every resident has the access they need. The City of SF is looking to replicate the success of 18F and U.S. Digital Service to create new teams within their respective organizations

Smart cities: How we move ourselves and goods around is rapidly changing. We can either embrace and shape these changes or be at the mercy of them. San Francisco has chosen to lead the way by putting people first in developing safer, more equitable and innovative solutions to transportation challenges. The City of SF is working with DOT, DOE, and DOC on advancing smart cities in San Francisco and nationally – specifically on mobility in the near term.

Performance-based procurement: How do we make sure that the money spent by the government delivers tangible results? How can we use procurement terms to cut cycle time and/or improve quality? We will work to advance innovative financing models to increase impact and accountability.

What’s the story behind starting Superpublic?

We were inspired by the example of the Superpublic lab in Paris, which was opened in November 2014 by the 27e Région and a group of innovation professionals (Plausible Possible, Care and Co, Counterpoint), with the City of Paris, the French National State (SGMAP), and a public bank called Caisse des Dépôts.

For us, Superpublic means providing a workspace where city, state, and federal agencies can come together and work on problems facing the Bay Area. San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose are all expected to benefit from the work of Superpublic as are agencies that operate at the county, state and federal level.

Superpublic provides space, curates programming, convenes summits, roundtables, and training programs to build capacity so that all parties to the lab (government, private companies, non profits, universities) can work together better.

Superpublic will open its doors July 2016.

What makes Superpublic different than other innovation labs?

Across the globe, cities look to San Francisco as the “innovation capital of the world” – to quote San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. This is the first innovation lab set up by a city government to solve problems prioritized by the city.

The lab, managed by the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, GSA and City Innovate Foundation will break down silos between different layers of government. Superpublic will bring together multiple layers of government in the same location and act as a catalyst for product and service development to drive more responsive and efficient government. Solutions that come out of the Lab will get commercialized by City Innovate Foundation with the objective to be scaled to other cities in the City Innovate Foundation network.

What will a typical day will look like at Superpublic?

The day starts off with a morning coffee session in the community area where new members introduce themselves and open discussions can take place to ensure communication flows freely between representatives from different organizations.

The project teams have dedicated team work spaces which they can configure to their needs to execute their tasks within the overall milestone-based project management method based on Lean Startup for the process and Scrum for technical development work.

The Superpublic Steering Committee through city/state and federal agencies have sourced a list of problem sets through their constituents which get narrowed to a focused list of 3 or 4 problems. These are explored by a taskforce led by City Innovate for a screening process for approval by the Steering Committee. Upon approval, representatives from lead cities, academic, and industry prepare the proposed projects for financial feasibility and scalability to other cities in the U.S.

This now includes formulating the city problem to be solved, developing a user narrative, mapping out the relevant ecosystem, and key skills needed in a project team as well as an estimation of project timeline, cost and possible funding of the effort.

The afternoon will have delegations visiting from other cities to exchange on city problems and discussions how the Superpublic model could be applied to their cities. The approved projects are kicked off by the team taking over their dedicated working space, being celebrated by everybody from the other teams, partners and City Innovate Foundation.

I’m part of an organization that wants to become a member of the Lab, what should I do?

Send an email to concierge@cityinnovate.org stating your name, your organization’s name, and the nature of your interest. A phone number is helpful.

How can those interested connect with you (website, Twitter, Facebook, email, etc.)?

You can learn more about Superpublic at www.cityinnovate.org/superpublic and on Facebook and Twitter.