Park is “still very much active and involved and will have a strong voice in making sure it’s properly executed,” said GovFresh Founder Luke Fretwell. “Ensuring a governmentwide open-source policy is implemented will be an important part of his long-term legacy on federal technology.”
All the policy mandates in the world won’t work, Fretwell argued, unless senior leaders are determined to push adoption at the agency level.
“There are a number of federal documents that already give agencies the green light to use open source, but adoption has been dependent on whether the CIO or CTO is comfortable deploying it,” Fretwell said.
The IBM Center for The Business of Government interviewed me as part of a new report on government innovation, “A Guide for Making Innovation Offices Work.”
As I mentioned in my GovFresh post, from my perspective, the fundamental components of long-term government innovation come in the form of open source and open data policies that are followed through on. Much of what we’ve seen to date from innovation offices is focused on short-term wins, seemingly used to help position the mayor as cutting-edge, or to provide a platform for a few key personalities inside government to talk conceptually about innovation, primarily around launching an open data or civic engagement platform.
Really enjoyed “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters and wish others who have accomplished as much would share their knowledge in the same way. Truly believe these types of books inspire exponential innovation and thinking in a way that no other medium can.
Here are a few of my favorite excerpts.
On the startup:
“Positively defined, a startup is the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future.”
On being contrarian:
“We still need new technology, and we may even need some 1999-style hubris and exuberance to get it. To build the next generation of companies, we must abandon the dogma created after the crash. That doesn’t mean the opposite ideas are automatically true: you can’t escape the madness of crowds by dogmatically rejecting them. Instead ask yourself how much of what you know about business is shaped by mistaken reactions to past mistakes? The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.”
On long-term execution:
“Anyone who has held an iDevice or a smoothly machined MacBook has felt the result of Steve Jobs’s obsession with visual and experiential perfection. But the most important lesson to learn from Jobs has nothing to do with aesthetics. The greatest thing Jobs designed was his business. Apple imagined and executed definite multi-year plans to create new products and distribute them effectively. Forget “minimum viable products”–ever since he started Apple in 1976, Jobs saw that you can change the world through careful planning, not by listening to focus group feedback or copying others’ successes.”
“So who do you tell? Whoever you need to, and no more. In practice, there’s always a golden mean between telling nobody and telling everybody–and that’s a company. The best entrepreneurs know this: every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator.”
“Every great company is unique, but there are few things that every business must get right at the beginning. I stress this so often that friends have teasingly nicknamed it ‘Thiel’s law': a startup messed up at its foundation cannot be fixed.”
On suits and CEOs:
“At Founders Fund, we saw this coming. The most obvious clue was sartorial: cleantech executives were running around wearing suits and ties. This was a huge red flag, because real technologists wear T-shirts and jeans. So we instituted a blanket rule: pass on a company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings. Maybe we still would have avoided these bad investments if we had taken the time to evaluate each company’s technology in detail. But the team insight–never invest in a CEO that wears a suit–got us to the truth a lot faster. The best sales is hidden. There’s nothing wrong with a CEO who can sell, but if he actually looks like a salesman, he’s probably bad at sales and worse at tech.”
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.
But there are people who are wired to be skeptics and there are people who are wired to be optimists. And I can tell you, at least from the last 20 years, if you bet on the side of the optimists, generally you’re right.
Great Peter Thiel interview with Marc Andreessen focused on his new book, “Zero to One.”
Luke Fretwell runs the civic technology site GovFresh. Working at Google is the west coast tech world’s "institutional rite of passage," the San Francisco Bay Area digital strategist says. "Google is to Silicon Valley what Congress is to Washington." How’s that? "Everyone either works or has worked there or knows someone who does or did," says Fretwell.
“Which floor to choose? This is a daily dilemma for him, and represents one of the central challenges of entrepreneurship. Silicon Valley venerates idea creation, but its pantheon is reserved for empire builders, people like Musk, Zuck, Bezos, Thiel, and Page whose grand visions and brilliant execution have had a profound impact not only on business but also society. The greatest minds of Silicon Valley can operate successfully on both floors, and no one is quite sure if that’s true for Levchin. Can he focus on the problem at hand, rather than being drawn into an endless search for the more daunting challenge down the road?”
I wrote a guest editorial for FierceGovernmentIT on how C-level government executives can leverage GitHub as a communications tool.