Steve Blank

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.)

How we changed the way the U.S. government commercializes science

Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

The following post is re-published with permission from Steve Blank‘s blog. Steve interviews Errol Arkilic, former lead program director for the National Science Foundation I-Corps, which uses his Lean LaunchPad curriculum to teach scientists and engineers how to take their technology out of the lab and into the marketplace.

In my interview with Errol, we discussed the origins of the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps), how and why it was created, and how it changed the way the government commercializes scientific research.

Today he is the founder of M34 Capital, a seed capital fund that focuses on early-stage projects being spun out of academic and corporate research labs.

Listen to my entire interview with Errol:

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

The origins of National Science Foundation I-Corps

The I-Corps had a serendipitous start. Errol explains in this clip.

Errol: There was a unique opportunity in 2011 when the new director of National Science Foundation said, ‘We want to do something new and different [in helping scientists commercialize their technology].’ … He charged me .. to put together a mentorship program [for academic scientists]. We floated that around the office for about a week and said there was no way that that’s going to work.

We had to do something different. And right about that time you were publishing your notes to the Lean LaunchPad course in spring of 2011, Stanford, E245. … There was a blog post that you wrote … describing the first class at Stanford. I read it and I ran thing down the hall and said to my colleagues, ‘You’ve got to go read this.’ There was one element of the blog post where you described how you were teaching entrepreneurship like we were teaching art. You were going to give them deep lessons of theory and then you were going to dump them in the deep end, so to speak [and give them experiential practice.] That paragraph really resonated with a bunch of us at NSF, me included.

That was about the same time that Dr. Suresh said we want to do something different. It was a serendipitous moment.

Steve: …This is the first time I’m hearing the other side of it, … that you actually had a charter .. to do something different. From my side … I wrote the book [The Four Steps to the Epiphany], and while all the theory was in there, you couldn’t just hand somebody the book and expect them to do something. … We needed a way to teach entrepreneurship that was experiential and hands-on.  And much like the educational paradigm, I can tell you about it all the time, but if I actually make you do it, it’s going to stick a lot more.

The Lean LaunchPad class.. was an experiment that no one had ever run before. [Up until then] the capstone class – meaning the best class you could take for being an entrepreneur in a university – was how to write a business plan. Yet we all [anyone teaching who actually had founded a company] knew that in all honesty no business plan survives first contact with customers. But nothing else like [The Lean LaunchPad class] was being taught.

This [Lean LaunchPad class] was to me a major science experiment – having teams come in, write a business model, talk to 10 customers a week, have them present their results every week and actually be testing a series of of hypotheses.

And the blog you were reading, [was created because] I thought that the class was so crazy and different I … wanted to share what I was doing [with other educators]. And since I open source everything I do, you were the recipient of open source. I have to tell you that everybody who knew me said, ‘Steve these are the most boring blogs you’ll ever write. No one cares about a new class, and no one’s going to ever read them.’ The good news is that for any of you who ever wanted to publish something Errol is a great example of what happens if there is only one person who reads what you write. Something magical could happen.

So that’s when you picked up the phone and called.

Errol: That’s right. I picked up the phone and said, ‘I’ve been reading your blog, I’ve been monitoring E245 and said I’ve got a deal for you. I’ve got 10,000 principal investigators and they all have technologies and projects that they think might have commercial potential, and our job is to figure out a way to figure out whether or not here is. Oh by the way, there’s no funding for you.’

Steve: Thank goodness I was already retired and funding didn’t matter. … My memory of the call is that it kind of went, ‘Hi I’m Errol from the NSF,’ and after I said, ‘What’s the NSF?’ After a long pause and explanation, you said, ‘The U.S. government needs your help,’ and I remember saying, ‘The U.S. government already got my help for four years in Vietnam and they’re not getting it again.’ … I kind of remember there was an even longer pause on your end, as I’m assuming you were thinking, “do I have the right or wrong guy at the end of the phone?”

I was ready to hang up on the call until you said there are 10,000 potential scientists [who could be my students.] In my career, the most fun I ever had was working with and selling to people who were doing truly rocket science. I had to learn what they were doing to be able to understand how to sell to them … [so teaching a class for the NSF] was a new opportunity – could I figure out if we could take rocket scientists and teach them the basics of how to build a business.

Errol: And we did. And I think that the principles of the scientific method applied to the commercial opportunity is spot on. That’s what scientists and engineers needed to embrace.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

What made him call Steve?

“A consistent theme we recognized at NSF, was that a lot of the startup companies [we were funding] really weren’t practicing what we knew to be the best and most effective way of taking technologies out of labs. … What we saw were practices that any investor would look at and say there’s got to be a better way of doing it.  And it wasn’t exclusive to the [NSF commercialization] program. It was a crappy way [the U.S. government had] of taking technology out of [all of its] labs.”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

How I-Corps Teams are selected

We started the interview process like most people – [we] asked about the idea and the status of the technology was and got spun up on the story. We pretty quickly identified that was the wrong way to go. Because really what we needed were teams that were totally aligned with one another and could work together under extreme pressure and extreme ambiguity because the ideas change anyway. … The teams that are coming together to investigate their commercial opportunity, they need to look way beyond the technical boundaries of their discipline to see if there is a business there. … The key thing is that we’re trying to take teams on a journey with us and with one anther, and some people are not amenable to change and not amenable to coaching and not amenable to advice.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here 

How the I-Corps has grown

Errol: The number is up at 550 teams [through the I-Corps classes]. And there’s scale being brought. You and I ran one, we ran two, and then we quickly identified we needed to bring additional Steve Blanks to the table and structure to put in place. We knew we that needed to duplicate the capacity. Stanford loaned us the resources to begin with but we knew that wasn’t in the long term sustainable, so while I was in NSF, we established a program that developed a structure that included a network of academic nodes that teach the course. … We brought on more schools. …

Steve: … If I remember, you and I brought on Georgia Tech, and then University of Michigan and then how many more?

Errol: The group after that is in NY it’s CUNY, NYU and Columbia. In DC it’s George Washington University, the University of Maryland and Virginia Tech, and now Johns Hopkins… in the Bay Area, there’s Berkeley, Stanford and UCSF.  … In Southern California, there’s Caltech, USC and UCLA. And in Texas, it’s the University of Texas at Austin, Rice and …

Steve: We’re losing count, but there’s a bunch of them now that started from that phone call. 550 teams; 20 universities [as nodes and another 36 as sites]; must be 30-40-50 instructors now playing Steve Blank. This kind of makes it one of the largest accelerators in the United States, probably up there with TechStars and Y Combinator except it’s a U.S. government accelerator that takes \ no equity. So, Errol, congratulations, you’ve created something wonderful.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Lessons for the country

I think the strong takeaway is that the commercial considerations must be done in parallel with the technical considerations. It’s not an after thought, it’s not something you come in later and tack on the end. If your goal is to get the technology out of the lab, it’s never too early to start thinking who the customer for that solution is. … If you are a scientist and you think that your science is addressing human needs, you better be talking to some humans. … I think the most rewarding element of the Innovation Corps is when a principle investigator comes back and says, ‘I’m now changing the way I think about crafting my research moving forward.’ That feedback is an incredible demonstration of a significant change.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

What is M34 Capital?

M34 is a fund that focuses on taking Customer Discovery and the Lean Startup process and applying it in the venture model. We look at companies at their earliest stage of development and we believe with our capital that through the approach of the lean process and customer discovery that we can get companies up the learning curve, up the value curve, more effectively than other approaches.  …  The companies that come out of I-Corps are primed for success but they still need help. That wasn’t surprising to us. We knew that there were gaps that needed to be filled – capital gaps, management gaps, experience gaps and we saw it as an opportunity to get back out and become an entrepreneur again. … We look across the board at any company that has the discipline of customer discovery and Lean and the reason we need that is because it’s just a different way of looking at things. It’s evidence-based, it’s the scientific method and when the company has that on Day Zero, the conversations that we have are just that more meaningful. … If they don’t get it, we’re not touching them. “

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Government, developers need to build a more structured, scalable approach to leveraging technology

The time has come to build a reliable, open platform that allows local governments to post development requirements and give private developers the ability to respond and build these applications for free.

Going a step further, we need to build a free, open source platform specifically for government, making it easier for government to install and implement and leverage plugins or modules for anything from standard contact forms to 311 citizen requests applications.

Fundamentally, we need a central repository for code and a governing organization, private or non-profit, that coordinates specifications and provides a reliable management process for deployment. Additionally, there needs to be sample usage and, ideally, implementation case studies that highlight how government is leveraging this tool and how others can follow suit.

We need a GitHub meets Taproot meets WordPress or Drupal for government.

Matthew Burton’s A Peace Corps for Programmers, comments like Kevin Curry’s recent “We need craigslist for government” tweet and inside open government baseball chatter echo these sentiments.

To date, contests to create killer Web and mobile applications from open data combined with developers with gumption have spearheaded much of the tech efforts. This approach has showed positive results, however, they don’t effectively address a customer-driven approach to product development (see Steve Blank), where the customer (government) defines the specification, instead of developers building applications of no direct benefit to government.

Government must begin to define the specification. Instead of putting it out to bid, government needs to put it out to BUILD.

Government needs to break the mold and take advantage of what Clay Shirky calls the cognitive surplus, leverage the enthusiasm of the civic developer and significantly lower the cost of its technology projects. Government must also move away from a ‘build our own’ approach to technology. This mindset is a waste of time and resources and financially irresponsible.

Sure, there are procurement hurdles around non-licensed software, but many of these can be re-defined, as done in places such as San Francisco, Portland, Vancouver.

Philanthropists or foundations with deep pockets need to step up and support a new organization or a current one truly dedicated to making this happen. Government could also ‘pay back’ with funding of its own, at a significant discount to what it would otherwise pay. Something like this needs sustainable investment and support.

If the private or non-profit sector and government could each eliminate any hurdles and actively engage an idea like this, we’d change the way government uses technology and how it serves its citizens.

Who can make this happen and how do we get started?

FedSpace answers, more questions, recommendations

FedSpaceMove over White House Web team, there’s a new alpha gov in town.

The General Services Administration recently announced it will create FedSpace, a ‘new social intranet for federal employees and contractors.’ The project will be managed by the agency’s Office of Citizen Services and the initial version is expected to launch late summer.

GSA describes it as follows:

FedSpace is a secure intranet and collaboration workspace for Federal employees and contractors. Designed to be “for Feds by Feds”, FedSpace will enable government employees to work collaboratively across agencies, through the use of Web 2.0 technologies like file sharing, wikis, a government–wide employee directory, shared workspaces, blogs, and more.

Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio has interesting thoughts as to why it’s too late for FedSpace (with spirited and substantial comments). Whether you believe the federal government should create another social network or intranet is another discussion. I understand Andrea’s 30,000-foot assessment, but disagree, mostly because an officially-endorsed government network has huge potential to cut through the open Web clutter and protect the privacy of people who just want to get their jobs done.

FedSpace was inevitable and will survive the test of time, regardless of its success. Longer term (1-2 years), if effectively executed, it will have a huge impact on GovLoop, the largest unofficial social network for government employees. To his credit, GovLoop founder Steve Ressler shared his suggestions for FedSpace.

To learn more about FedSpace, there’s a great FAQ and overview page here.

This is a great opportunity for the federal government to do something creatively epic and have a major impact on the way government works. Below are some questions and recommendations.

Questions:

  • What is the budget?
  • What will it be developed in?
  • Will it be hosted on a government cloud?
  • How many people are on the development team?
  • What contractor firms are working on the project?
  • Who’s the project lead?
  • How will success be measured?

Recommendations:

  • Change the name. Government needs to stop mimicking dot-com social network branding and get creative. Use a naming contest as an opportunity build interest. While this may seem trivial, branding is a big deal.
  • Read Steve Blank’s customer development classic The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Joshua Porter’s Designing for the Social Web is a great reference for non-technical team members and will help others get more excited about the potential.
  • Leverage experts outside of the government tech bubble. Smart people are working internally on this project, but engage with in-the-trenches product and marketing development experts from popular commercial networks. Bring them in for brown-bag discussions or video-conference Q&As.
  • Start an open blog to chronicle your progress and solicit input. You’ll get free advice and feedback from all sectors, increase project visibility and create a resource for state governments looking to do the same.
  • Get serious about marketing it. Its usefulness will determine long-term success, but short-term, you’ll need to get very creative to get 2 million employees actively engaged.

Four Steps to the (Gov 2.0) Epiphany: Better Government Through Citizen Development

I wrote this post to explore a question: how could normal, everyday citizens be as passionate about and engaged with their government as they are with companies like Apple or Google? Here’s what I’ve come up with: government needs a Citizen Development strategy.

A growing trend in the startup and Web 2.0 space is a concept developed by Steve Blank called Customer Development, which essentially is a set of processes and best practices around incorporating user feedback and demand into every step of the product development process. Sounds pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised how many startups fail to get out of the building and talk to their customers until after they’ve already built most or all of their product. You can read more about Customer Development here and here.

Anyway, we’ve been thinking and blogging a lot at MightyBrand about Customer Development, and I started thinking about government, and how some of the same lessons might be useful to government agencies, so I thought I’d walk through the four steps of Customer Development and how they might be applied by government agencies as a kind of “Citizen Development”.

We’ve seen some really encouraging trends around openness and transparency in government, and that’s exciting. It’s very important that we as citizens get data and information out of the government, but equally important is the idea of getting data and information and feedback into the government, in terms of how we want our tax dollars to be spent, and how the government can be more effective with those dollars.

This raises a question we should address: why should government agencies care about feedback?

The pragmatist reason:

If you do this, you can do more with less.

Government budgets are getting slashed at the same time that citizens expect more from the few dollars that remain. And as more data flows out of government into citizen hands, more scrutiny will be applied to how tax dollars are being used (or misused). Increasingly, citizens are going to demand that their voices are heard, that government projects adhere to best practices, and that every dollar is spent most effectively. This means NOT spending money on large projects and initiatives that there’s not sufficient “market demand” for.

The idealist reason:

It’s the right thing to do. Taking taxpayer money and spending it on expensive boondoggles and pork projects is theft, pure and simple.

So where does the rubber meet the road? How do agencies actually effectively listen to their constituents and incorporate their feedback into management and budgeting priorities? The four steps of customer development are a great place to start (and how they might translate in the context of government):

  1. Customer Discovery -> Do citizens want this project? Will they pay for it?
  2. Customer Validation -> What’s the minimum viable product we can launch?
  3. Customer Creation -> Refining and growing project based on citizen feedback
  4. Company Building -> Integrating project into larger organizational structure and management team

We’ve seen others talking about some of these ideas and actually doing some very cool things, but what we need is for the government to actively engage with its citizens. We see some small-scale and very encouraging examples (even at the Federal level), but is anyone listening on the bigger projects? How is medicare listening to its customers? What about the trillions we’ve spent on bailouts? What about the trillions we’ll spend on the health care plan? Who is listening to us on that?

What specific strategies and techniques can the government use to start engaging in conversations with their citizens and moving the needle towards passionate citizens?