Bring Different Innovation to Washington

A few weeks ago, I received a call from my friend Robert Neelbauer at about 11 pm. He wanted to talk about innovation and technology startups in DC. For those who live around here, you know there’s not a lot of them. Mostly project-type things that entrepreneurs who work day jobs have cooking. And of course, even though DC is home to Launchbox Digital an accelerator program in the order of Techstars or Ycombinator, there remains a dearth of Silicon Valley style startups.

This call got me thinking about the landscape in DC. It is, as it always has been, a center of government. Those of us who live here joke about the difference between Washington, the center of government, and the District, a wider culture of arts, nightlife and activity outside of government. The reality is, however, that the two are inexorably fused at the hip. Spending Friday nights enjoying nightlife inevitably means spending time among people connected in Washington, on Capitol Hill or other parts of government. It is difficult to live in this city without being part of the Washington-culture somehow. More after the jump.

3531416607_3e8e066127Today, with the Obama administration and its embrace of internet culture, the advent of “Government 2.0″ has come about. Government 2.0, a term describing the second generation of government using the faux-fashionable way of versioning, describes an embrace of web technologies and culture to advance the mission of government. Without getting into my feelings on Government 2.0 as a whole (my thoughts are well-documented), it’s difficult to escape the reality of enterprise in DC.

DC is not a city lent to Silicon Valley-style innovation. We will never house the next Twitter and Google only exists here as a lobbying arm of the Mountain View, California search giant. It is a city dedicated to practical innovation. We will never have the sex appeal to attract the innovators in California here. It’s not our style.

What we do have is an opportunity for innovation as it pertains to agency mission. We do have the opportunity to develop products that meet the needs of elected government, established government and citizens in a time of economic uncertainty. We do have the ability to build products and services that meet the needs of Washington, but as long as we try to meet the needs of the country and the world, we run the risk of barking up the wrong tree.

Yahoo made a massive move last week, announcing a search deal with Microsoft. Carol Bartz, the CEO of Yahoo, suggested that Yahoo could not compete with Google anymore in search and the deal would allow Yahoo to focus and innovate in the areas they could compete. If you haven’t been paying attention to me since 2007, then you would have missed my thoughts on this. Yahoo came to grips with the realization that they couldn’t compete with Google but they could own another niche. This is the same realization that DC has to come to for itself. We can’t (nor should we) compete with Silicon Valley. Besides the fact that they are dwindling in relevancy as the spotlight shifts to other cities and reasons, we have something they can never have.

And while Silicon Valley warlords aimlessly try to find their relevancy and foothold in Washington, we have the ability to use our real connections, our real knowledge of the inside-the-beltway world, and our real grassroots abilities that we displayed in getting our President elected to bring new and relevant innovation to government.

By the way, the first person who suggests government agencies need wikis and Twitter to be relevant, is banished back to California.

White House Unveils an IT Spending Dashboard

During the run up to last years landmark election, then-candidate Barack Obama made a promise to appoint a federal Chief Technology Officer to oversee the federal IT infrastructure and data. In our primary endorsement of Obama, we said:

In the wake of 9/11, a glaring weakness was revealed in the FBI’s technology infrastructure. That has not been addressed. As one with first hand experience working for both the Department of the Navy and Health and Human Services, I can attest to technology tone-deafness. One candidate is proposing the creation of a CTO position to ensure that all government agencies are moving forward into the 21st century with modern technology at their fingertips. As a sidenote, how is it we don’t have a CTO already”

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At the time, and throughout the campaign, we were not clear that such a position would actually become two positions – Chief Information Officer, a position held by former District of Columbia CTO Vivek Kundra and responsible for the policy and strategic planning of technology efforts by the administration and the executive agencies, and Chief Technology Officer, held by Aneesh Chopra.

In a nod to government bureaucracy, Mr. Chopras actual title is Chief Technology Officer and Director for Technology in the White House Office of Science and Technology. Fit that on a business card.

Picture 6Mr. Chopra, who is a geeked out geek all by himself, was at the Personal Democracy Forum, a tech heavy conference with an emphasis on technology play within government, political action and open government, where he unveiled USASpending.gov. The new site provide a new dashboard for overview of spending across the federal agencies.

It’s an interesting website, for sure, from an administration who appears to have done its’ level best to open up the windows and the doors of government with projects like Data.Gov, designed to provide raw data sources to developers and those interested in digging inside the raw numbers, and Recovery.gov, designed to aid and assist in the economic recovery.

Certainly, the new IT Dashboard is incomplete and it seems they know that. Notably, it’s easy to get 50,000 foot snapshots in the form of a pie chart, but the data should be something that can be drilled into more than it already is.

Here’s a video demonstrating the use of the new dashboard.

Also, take a look at other articles about it.

The Three Constituents of Government Engagement

The other day, I had a chance to speak with Congressional staffers on Capitol Hill about blogging and social media. It was an interesting opportunity that few people get, but I was honored to be given a chance to have that opportunity. It was also interesting to me that, the Democrats had a different set of interests, it seemed, than the Republicans. The Republicans definitely seemed to be interested about the concept of Twitter and microcontent and finding ways to communicate on behalf of their bosses (the members of Congress). The Democrats, on the flip side, seemed oriented to ethical communications, almost shying away from talking to bloggers for journalistic integrity and ensuring that all activity online feel in lines with the rules.

Regardless of the various conversations going on inside those halls and the various interests conveyed, they all have the same three constituencies to cater to. In fact, any government entity has to concern themselves with these same three constituencies. I had this conversation, in fact, last night at TechCocktail DC, where an entrepreneur was building a product that would directly serve government agencies. As a new entrepreneur with a new product in active development, he wanted my thoughts on how to bring the software to market. I advised him to think about these three different constituencies because, for a technology or movement to succeed in government, all three of these groups must have their needs addressed.

The Citizens (or the Users)

In the United States, rightfully, the federal government exists because of the American people. Every dollar spent on a program, project, contract or other investment is money that is gained through taxes or borrowing, which is in turn, paid for by taxes. Therefore, the American people have a direct vested interest in every line item in an agency budget, including product investment. This is why it is so important that the ideas that are brought to the table and utilized are done with careful consideration of ROI.

If a government agency decides to use a product, it is in the American people’s best interest that the idea is well vetted and has a high chance of success. Unlike other areas of the marketplace where experimentation can be tried, it is a much more difficult sell if large amounts of money are at play with an unknown chance of success.

The Elected Government (or the Board)

The second constituency, and the political side of the whole conversation, is the elected government. These are the Obamas, the Cabinet members, the department heads and other political appointees that set the policy and direction for their fiefdoms. They are the ones only concerned with the 50,000 foot view, that look at the puzzle as a whole and strategize about direction.

The elected government, at the end of the day, are likely to make the big decisions. Those decisions, might not be decisions about the adoption of a software product or technology, unless those products are major direction-changing products. However, they offer a significant stake in formulating the thinking surrounding adoption. In order to meet the need of this group, the entrepreneur has to think about the mission of the agency, and how strategically, their product or service is going to affect the strategic thinking at the top.

The Established Government (or the Employees)

The third important constituency in the ecosystem of government selling, is the established government. While the tenured feds who have been carreerists for 20 or 30 years, may not look at the larger strategy decisions, they are intimately involved in the day to day. They are the foot soldiers that, regardless of who is in office, continue to do what they do. They have their kingdoms that have been built up over years, making decisions not based on the high-level strategy, but based on executive orders, court rulings and the practical ebb and flow of day to day work.

The established government cares little about the “why’s” (many are just there to do their job and go home, which is not to say that they don’t care – they just have a different level of buy-in), and instead are focused on the “how”. They might argue, “It’s great that we want to adopt Linux as the operating system of choice in our agency to save money for the taxpayers, but we have significant interoperability concerns with other agencies.”

In order to bring a product to market, an entrepreneur must understand the practical challenges that are faced in an operational environment. This cannot be done with a single meeting in a conference room for an hour or two, and it can’t be done by simply reading blogs or newspapers. An entrepreneur should take as much time to understand that landscape intimately, and ensuring that any solution brought forth is going to address challenges as best as possible.

This group is also going to be the one that is most likely to derail a “pitch”.

Summary

Whenever you want to bring a product to market, the government (like business), is going to look at what you do from the perspective of their own understanding and perceptions. Taking the time to listen first, and understand the challenges of the three constituencies, is going to go a long way in extending your product reach to this audience.

It would be presumptuous to walk into Google and suggest better software for a perceived internal problem without first understanding if your solution extends Google’s mission to organize the worlds information. If it doesn’t help Google gain market share with their own products, then it’s not likely something that the Google brass care to entertain. If it doesn’t help Google, in some way, make money, then it probably doesn’t have wings. A sensible entrepreneur would look at these concepts before walking in the door. Why aren’t we doing the same thing with the government?