Government // Leadership
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1/18/2013
05:28 PM
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We Must Run Government IT Like A Startup

Government 2.0 is about more than social media. It requires throwing out outdated processes and adopting new models of success.

A recent piece on InformationWeek.com by David Carr pointed me toward the federal government's HowTo.gov and the site's digital strategy guide. It's a well-intentioned body of work consisting of all of the consultant models, numbered steps, PMP-type milestone tables with action owners and, of course, acronyms. It includes a quote from President Obama: "I want us to ask ourselves every day, how are we using technology to make a real difference in people's lives?"

Indeed. But making a difference in people's lives through innovation isn't just about technology; it's also about throwing out flawed process models and adopting new ones.

I agree with Carr, who wrote: "If you work in government, be prepared to lose control. If you don't go out and meet social media head-on, it will happen anyway, all around you."

[ Find out how the federal government innovates with less. Read Busting Through The Federal IT Budget Ceiling. ]

Most government entities are simply publishing information; they're not engaging in discussions with constituents. It's not social if there's not a two-way exchange of information. Please don't tell me you're not resourced for it. That's like a private-sector business telling me it's not resourced to handle those annoyances called customers.

Carr's assertion that government entities could lose control is just the tip of the iceberg. Government needs to completely change. Yes, technology is involved, but the way governments use technology also needs to change. It's not just about using social media. It's about decentralizing. It's about instituting agile processes. It's about delivering benefits to citizens rather than adhering to bureaucracy.

Governments -- slow, lumbering and unresponsive -- must adopt a startup culture. Old way: command and control. New way: decentralized collaboration on shared goals. Political factors and life in a fish bowl discourage government staffers from engaging in experiments with any risk. After all, if their experiments don't work out, they'll be derided for spending taxpayer money on a boondoggle, a potential career limiter.

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Within our city's IT organization, where I'm CIO, I've been gratified that some of my staff have gone out, with very little prompting, and gotten educated about startup culture. Some of them participated in a Startup Weekend; others have integrated agile principles into project management.

Here's one recent, incredible example. Using the principles of "minimum viable product," "short, iterative product cycle" and "small experiment" from the lean startup camp, my staff preempted our city's plan for a truck routing system based on off-the-shelf software with a cheaper, less complicated idea of their own.

They set up a small experiment without telling me or any other executives in our organization. They talked with sanitation truck drivers, in effect saying: "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we could save some fuel? Want to do a small pilot that won't take a lot of time?" The answer, of course, was yes. They marked down the odometer readings on a brush pickup truck for the start and end of a run. Then they plugged all of the address locations for the pickups into our existing geographic information system and ran a route optimization.

It turns out that, with basic route optimization, we could cut mileage by more than 20% on our own! The "minimum viable product" for drivers is merely a set of turn-by-turn directions on a piece of paper. Getting fancy, we could upload the data points into Google Maps for iOS and let it shout out the directions. Point is, we figured out that we probably don't need the capital project -- once we started acting more like a startup.

Government doesn't need to change all at once. If we take iterative steps and acknowledge that everything won't always work out, we can make small changes that will later scale to larger changes. We need to start getting out of the way of our staff and let them start to solve problems. And most important, we have to stop doing things the way they've always been done, and start copying the success of our private-sector brethren.

InformationWeek's 2013 Government IT Innovators program will feature the most innovative government IT organizations in the 2013 InformationWeek 500 issue and on InformationWeek.com. Does your organization have what it takes? The nomination period for 2013 Government IT Innovators closes April 12.

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lgarey@techweb.com
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lgarey@techweb.com,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/22/2013 | 6:27:47 PM
re: We Must Run Government IT Like A Startup
Media outlets that play "gotcha" with government, watching for anything that could be mocked, will very likely stifle any urge to experiment or think outside the box, as you suggest. In Massachusetts, the government stopped sending paper benefit checks/food stamps to people recieving assistance and started doing electronic fund transfers. Much less expensive and easier to track, but of course you had people complaining. I actually saw a comment that we should be "shaming" people on food stamps by making them pull out the paper in the grocery line. When a very vocal percentage of the population sees government as "the problem" no matter what, can you blame gov workers for being risk-averse? Lorna Garey, InformationWeek
jfeldman
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jfeldman,
User Rank: Strategist
1/22/2013 | 10:38:43 PM
re: We Must Run Government IT Like A Startup
Ha, I'm afraid the "Government Fear Factor" is alive and well. But folks in government need to kind of push past it. AND, if we want innovative government, we need to tell gov employees that SOME degree of failure IS an option. My favorite Eric Ries line on this topic: "Telling someone that failure is not an option is an invitation for them to lie to you." More on that, here. http://www.informationweek.com...
Andrew Hornback
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Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/23/2013 | 4:25:25 AM
re: We Must Run Government IT Like A Startup
Interesting that the State of Massachusetts follows the Federal Government's lead and ends up with a public relations black eye from it.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
Mike_Acker
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Mike_Acker,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/23/2013 | 12:50:52 PM
re: We Must Run Government IT Like A Startup
=" Most government entities are simply publishing information; they're not engaging in discussions with constituents."

"we must run government "

yep, we need to reduce the cost-burden that government imposes on us in taxes, inflation, and debilitating regulations . but read G Edward Griffin: The Creature from Jekyl Island . ad the end, Mr. Griffin admonishes us "the cabal will not give up without a viscious fight". he ain't kidding .
lgarey@techweb.com
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lgarey@techweb.com,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/23/2013 | 10:56:53 PM
re: We Must Run Government IT Like A Startup
I recently read somewhere that if you want to live without all that pesky governance and regulation, try Somalia. It's fashionable to bash government, but rule of law doesn't happen by itself. Taxes are the cost of living in a civil society. We should be ashamed of forcing government employees to be in a bunker mentality. Lorna Garey
Deirdre Blake
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Deirdre Blake,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/23/2013 | 11:57:47 PM
re: We Must Run Government IT Like A Startup
True fact of nature: Put the word "government" in any headline, even in an IT publication, even in the context of improving efficiency, and you will draw "viscious" comments.
MyW0r1d
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MyW0r1d,
User Rank: Strategist
1/25/2013 | 11:18:43 PM
re: We Must Run Government IT Like A Startup
All nation-states have their method of funding (Somalia included probably) and creation of laws depending on their form of government. But whether it is government or private industry there should be one common expectation - quality. It must work or be reparable, delivering a non functional service with little or no expectation to fix its shortcomings is asking for criticism. Development inherently implies acceptance of setbacks (failures if you prefer) but they should be kept in a sandbox environment to the maximum extent possible with an action plan to address the unanticipated. As Mr. Feldman stated the "slow, lumbering, and unresponsive" should change. A starting point might be changing the mindset of those who first evaluate a project from "how can we avoid this" and to a "how can we do this." Without getting into a long explanation of personal history, it comes from close, extensive experience.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
1/23/2013 | 11:50:26 PM
re: We Must Run Government IT Like A Startup
"We Must Run Government IT Like A Startup" -- Given the statistics on startups, that means going out of business.
jfeldman
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jfeldman,
User Rank: Strategist
1/24/2013 | 5:59:21 PM
re: We Must Run Government IT Like A Startup
I'll take a portfolio of "startup" operations (the equivalent of a portfolio of "experiments" in an IT organization) over a blue chip any day. Yes, some of them will fail, but it beats wallowing in mediocrity.
Jonathan_Camhi
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Jonathan_Camhi,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/24/2013 | 6:13:29 PM
re: We Must Run Government IT Like A Startup
Startups have to earn the trust of investors and customers to get anywhere. In government the investors and customers are the public at large. There has to be more widespread effort to educate the public about the benefits that technological innovation are already bringing to government and how it functions. Without that education I doubt that the public will ever trust government IT enough to fail with their tax dollars. There's simply too much distrust of government right now to expect the public will go along with any government project that might fail. And that is very unfortunate because with worldwide urbanization, government IT is going to have become much more innovative and agile.
jyalai
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jyalai,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/24/2013 | 9:19:16 PM
re: We Must Run Government IT Like A Startup
I work for our IT department in my city. You could say our slogan is "Get the job done!" We are not bound by many policies and standards to get it done. We work hard on delivering what the users are asking for. I believe we run into our own problems, because we do not have a big picture approach. We have systems teams making changes to the data center that affect a multiple number of applications without forethought or due diligence to make sure it doesn't cause problems. We then spend an inordinate amount of crisis time fixing the situation. We do a lot of software development that is never used, because we did not help the user think through how the software fit in the big picture. Our IT is not necessarily always to blame. Our users demand everything ASAP putting a lot of pressure on the teams to get stuff out. However, a little reflection, standardizing processes, and communication go a long way.
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