Granicus

Doubling down on government technology

Photo: Luke Fretwell

Photo: Luke Fretwell

We’ve recently seen an uptick in venture capital interest around government and civic technology startups, but before we enthusiastically celebrate these investments, we must ask ourselves whether this potential bubble will truly reshape government IT or simply leave us five years from now in the same place we are today.

During the Code for America Summit in September, Govtech Fund’s Ron Bouganim and Code for America Director of Products & Startups Lane Becker had a great “Emerging Startup Ecosystem” discussion about the the difference between civic and government technology, and the latter’s focus on solving inherent bureaucratic problems.

Bouganim’s closing comments have stuck with me since watching the interview, and they’re important for us all to think about as we commit to building technology solutions, whether it’s for internal government operations or public-facing citizen engagement applications:

“It is tough because it’s early. Clearly everybody in this room is transformers. These are the folks … that are at the front of this, so it’s tough, because you often at times feel alone, but I think there’s a growing community, and it’s only going to get better. So, I guess my fundamental advice is that if you’re really passionate about this space, and you really identify a big problem, you have to kind of double down on being an entrepreneur. It’s hard enough being an entrepreneur and, in an emerging space like gov tech, you have to double down on that, and I would just encourage you to stick with it.”

Announced in September, Govtech Fund will invest $23 million into government-focused technology ventures. Recently, Y Combinator also expressed an interest in the industry when it issued a request for startups that included those focused on the public sector. Andreessen Horowitz has already invested $15 million in OpenGov, focused on bringing visualizations to government budgets. Other startups such as Socrata and MindMixer have also received multi-million dollar infusions to build the future of public sector IT.

Given the consistent inability for government projects to deliver on time or on budget, especially in the light of recent, major IT failures, we’ve collectively identified the problem. While much of this is due to culture, bureaucratic procurement processes and waterfall project management practices, the fundamental issue with failed government IT is that it is built on proprietary solutions.

Because of this, not only do we not have access to code, more importantly, we lose an opportunity to create an ecosystem of community and collaboration that sustains itself. To put it in context of the latest civic meme, today’s government technology is built for, not with.

The early trend we’re seeing in government technology venture investments is that the focus is still on the proprietary. While this will have incremental benefits and provide short-term excitement with each new launch, they don’t address the bigger issue every government faces in harnessing control over their IT systems.

They’re locked down and locked in.

The argument you often hear when discussing open source with proprietary government technology startup entrepreneurs is that businesses need some form of competitive advantage to build a product and develop a customer base with enough runway to sustain itself longer term. While this makes sense in a commercial market, it addresses the needs not of government, but that of the entrepreneur. The technology may provide a cutting-edge, cloud-based, big data, mobile or social solution worthy of a press release or mention in the trades, but what is it doing to really change the IT conundrum we can’t seem to procure our way out of?

This isn’t to say these new technologies don’t have merit or their builders don’t have good intention. Indeed, some do, however, there’s a classic innovation wall proprietary government IT software hits when it has reached a certain level of customer acquisition and no longer needs to compete. Oakland’s recent insistence that Granicus open up its application programming interface is exhibit A on what happens when a vendor corners a government market: technology stagnation trumps innovation. Without open systems or modularity, government is safely locked in.

We frequently hear the vending machine analogy applied to government. Today, the vending machine is the proprietary vendor machine, and government is the one doing the shaking.

If we’re going to double down and truly build a civic operating system anyone can plug into, and be proud of, we must invest in a strategy that sustains beyond one software solution.

We need to double down on a philosophical approach to government technology.

There’s not an overnight solution and the problem won’t be solved tomorrow, but if you’re really in this business to transform government, whether you’re an entrepreneur or investor, it’s time to double down on open.

Government can, literally, no longer afford to operate business as usual when it comes to technology. If ‘Vendor 2.0’ is simply a new class of fresh faces operating no differently than its predecessor, let’s prepare our kids for disappointment.

You’re either investing in or building tomorrow’s problem today, or you’re co-creating the future of government.

The latter might be a longer, lonelier road, but we have to stick with it because, as Bouganim says, it’s only going to get better.

Let’s double down.

Watch the full video of Becker and Bouganim’s discussion:

Oakland vendor API requirement a big step for municipal open government

Oakland (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

Oakland (Photo: Luke Fretwell)

To get an idea of how badly Oakland needs to upgrade its digital infrastructure, you just need to read this one line from Tuesday’s city council staff report:

“Legistar 4.8 has not been upgraded since purchase in 1997 & has reached the limits”

Limits in this case being the massive limitations of the current technology to support better civic engagement and discussion and no ability for our community to access the critical data held in the legislative system in Oakland.

There are many big changes desperately needed in Oakland’s civic tech stack, and this one is long overdue. Our ancient legislation software was the reason Miguel Vargas and his crew struggled so hard to complete the build-out of our Councilmatic system, however with this upgrade, we’ll now use a similar system to other major cities which means both improved, user facing functionality, as well as a much easier deployment of a more robust Councilmatic that has been tailored for this version by folks in Philadelphia and Chicago.

We’ve been waiting for over two years, so it’s exciting that this finally gets approved by the Finance Committee. While the software upgrade itself is an important step for our city, more important was witnessing the ways our staff and elected officials have adapted their thinking about technology, data, code and procurement.

Two years ago there was nothing to brag about, not much to be proud of in Oakland’s use of technology and our lawmaking. Today, we saw a pivotal moment for our city.

It turns out that there is something in addition to the basic software the vendor, Granicus, can offer – an application programming interface – if you’re not a tech geek, this essentially means a robot (code, not real) that takes in requests form various people, programs, companies and dishes out the information requested in digital form.

In this case, the API is something Granicus has built, but has not made available to cities that have not required access to it – almost no one to date (New York City is just now struggling to get this sorted out and seems to be on the right track). 

Before approving the purchase, Councilmember Libby Schaaf asked the committee to require that Granicus provide an API as part of the contract requirements. No one in Oakland has ever unbundled the contracted software from the date before (aside form the unintentional effort with SeeClickFix that came with an API we didn’t need to request).

This means that Oakland gets a new legislative publishing and video streaming system, but we also get direct access to all the data in this system – machine-readable data that allows local hackers and engineers to build alert systems on specific issues and neighborhoods, custom tools to help people stay informed about what our government is doing and, well, anything you may want to do with full access to the data about our decision-making and public meeting track records.

After the meeting, I emailed LaTonda Simmons, our city clerk who is the manager of this whole system to thank her for moving this and making it possible to unlock this data. I was concerned the lack of specificity about the API being public would somehow bite us in the ass. I was wrong. 

Her response was encouraging. Folks in city hall are listening, and it turns out geeks can make a difference:

Hi Spike – I spoke to Granicus immediately after to Finance.  They reconfirmed they will turn on API. And yes, your feedback and that of many others will be important in this process.  More to come and thank you for your support also.  I must add that this wouldn’t have been possible without Bryan making it move.  Looking forward to the next CityCamp event.  Chat soon.

-= LaTonda S.

People in the city are really starting to get this stuff, and it’s going be awesome as it becomes the norm – less bundling of contracted software with built in, accessible open data.

Granicus Open Platform delivers government content from the cloud direct to citizens

A while back I met with Granicus in their San Francisco offices and discussed the Granicus Open Platform, a cloud-based, software-as-a-service approach to delivering government content. Small towns, major cities, counties and a handful of state and federal agencies use the service (full list), which includes live stream public meetings, legislative management, training and citizen engagement and more.

Granicus CEO Tom Spengler sat down with GovFreshTV and discussed cloud-based software, open government and how his company fits into the picture: