Moving into the new year, I wanted to take a (short) minute to write down a few of the things I learned in 2015. And I wanted to write these down as personal reminders about how I talk / write about these things moving forward. It’s easy to slip back into what’s comfortable or what’s vogue — and to forget the on-the-ground truths you witnessed firsthand.
I’m told I’m a fast-forgetter.
In that spirit, here are a few topics I hope to speak to with a bit more sophistication, appreciation, and nuance in 2016. And you better believe this will be a running list…
No, it’s not the 1,000 pound gorilla in the room we all make it out to be. Worse, the more we talk it up as the fundamental (or “insurmountable”) barrier to new SaaS startups, the less inclined they are to get into the game: it’s a self-fulfilling, dire prophesy. Truly it’s more of an antiquated system ripe for small hacks and simpler interfaces. And those we are already starting to see. Instead the harder structural problem comes by way of a painful, rigid budgeting process and the need for discretionary, innovation-friendly, on-demand reserves to just. get. things. done.
- Reframe: Let’s stop trying to fix procurement since it was a system built for “buying pencils” and instead build new interfaces and processes that are modern and startup-friendly from the start.
No, it won’t magically turn your city into Silicon Valley, nor will it overnight rid your city of lobbying, undue influence, or political corruption. There’s only so much accountability or economic firepower laden in the few hundred datasets voluntarily published online by an institution not usually known for single-handedly doing either.
- Reframe: Data is just data, and what matters isn’t how much is published, but how much is used. And to what end. The conversation needs to shift away from inventories and publication calendars to user needs and integration partnerships: give users the data they want where they want it.
No, old, antiquated, disconnected systems aren’t insurmountable. Yes, they often give entrepreneurs (and some civil servants) nightmares. Many — if not most — are so barren or so underutilized or so abandoned that a wholesale replacement isn’t untenable; and more to the point: if you get to the core need, focus there, and chip away at the legacy system, I suspect you’ll find out that a top-to-bottom replacement or full-scale integration would not be necessary — particularly if you’re building front-end consumer interaction apps or managerial dashboards/reports.
- Reframe: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. To borrow a phrase from a old colleague, you can get a lot done by just drilling little holes into the decaying IT edifice. Think more about small pieces loosely joined, not big integrations atop shoddy foundations.
Digital Services Units
No, not every city in the county can build out a GDS, USDS, 18F, or even the smaller efforts being launched by SF, Philly, LA and others: that model just doesn’t scale. (I should admit here in some of those cases, I’m personally at fault for kickstarting those.) Smaller townships lack the funding to resource such teams and the local talent (sometimes) to staff them. Plus, it’s just not a terribly leveraged approach to a coast-to- coast digital services transformation.
- Reframe: This one is hard, because I don’t see a fully realized model (though there’s the start of one) we can point to. In terms of vernacular however I would argue that we must focus the conversation on the services themselves, not necessarily the teams or structures other, bigger governments deployed to build them. And then continue to have vibrant, humble conversations with smaller jurisdictions and new startups/organizations on how to solve this “last mile” problem. (And in truth, it’s much, much more than just the last mile; it’s more like the second mile problem.)
Volunteer civic hacking
No, it really can’t be all volunteer. Time for organizing is needed; money for pizza and beer; space for getting together; listservs for community building; technical resources for hosting; materials for marketing. And to top all that off, you need storytellers working with media outlets to make sure what happens in a hack night doesn’t just stay there; each story must spread to have outsized impact. That means that even if the majority of folks can — probably happily — volunteer their time in the moment of a hack night, hackathon, or app contest, none of that will really matter in any kind of sustainable, influential way of someone(s) or something(s) are compensated for (and thus responsible for) their time to create the conditions for volunteerism to matter.
- Reframe: local nonprofits, B-Corps, or even civic minded for-profits need to take an active role is housing and shepherding the civic tech community. People (at least some) need to be paid. And that’s not just to support viability of the local movement, but also to ensure staying power, to open up the doors a broader range audiences as leaders, and to — plainly — keep the to-date volunteer leaders from losing their minds. If community is really going to be capacity for local innovation, then we must invest in it.
More to come… please share your thoughts, responses, and ideas!