Engaging government folks

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(Aidan Feldman) #1

This came up in a Facebook comment:

Through BetaNYC, other brigades, etc., I’ve seen a ton of cool civic hacking projects. Things like data visualizations would be hugely helpful to the agencies that publish that data, but my guess is that the majority of these projects never get back to them. My question is: how can we better connect civic hackers with the relevant people in government (henceforth “govvies”), so that they can help one another?

This could take one of many forms:

  • A category on Discourse
  • A dedicated (lower-noise) mailing list/forum that we could encourage our connections in government to join
  • A directory-ish site (e.g. “Find people with X responsibility or X interests at X agency”)
    • 18F’s Midas platform may be helpful here

So, not sure if this is actually a “meta” discussion, or a project proposal. Would love ideas! Also, I can’t imagine I was the first person to have this idea, so curious to hear about what else is out there.

A Municipal Innovation Unit ala 18F/GDS?
(Fatima ) #2

I agree with this!

Spoke with @afeld about this, but would be good to share it with everyone :smile:

In my limited experience, last year’s Hubhacks Boston’s challenges involved issues that the city government was facing in regards to permit applications.

As a result, there were many people who worked in the relevant offices of the Boston’s city government present during hackathon. In fact, I remember one individual from the tech office that with our team for almost the entire hackathon. He offered advice, information, and his opinion on the technology we were building.

If Boston can do it, so can we :wink: right?

If there’s a way to invite govvies to events like a Hacknight or CodeAcross, it should definitely be made! Because their presence really changes the dynamic of “Is what I’m creating useful” or “what kind of problems/issues exist on a higher level”.

(Noel Hidalgo) #3

@afeld thanks for this. I’m going to move this conversation to general discussion…

you are not the first one to have the idea of a better platform for collaboration. discourse is an attempt to bring about such a space. for the last year, we’ve challenged ourselves to see what should work. one of our 2014 goals was to launch a “membership” portal. in that portal, one could see people, projects, data, and conversations.

last year, @volkan_unsal spent many a weeks playing around with discourse and paved the foundation for this current site. better internal organization will lead to a more welcoming community. this year, we are working on that!

so to three points.

  1. what type of category? should it be public or private? how would it differentiate itself from general conversations?

  2. I’ve dusted off our mail chip list and plan on using it more often. Do you think that would work?

  3. A few years ago, big apps experimented with Collabfinder. It was the closest thing to Midas in a decade. We were looking to extend discourse to have more robust profiles. It looks like Midas might be a great alternative! Who is working on that? Is it connected to the civic.api / civic.json conversation?

(Joel Natividad) #4

What about following what is done in Federal Government with Small Business Innovation Research at the municipal level?

Select government agencies are actually mandated to carve out about 2.5% of their research budgets for smaller businesses. Out of this research grants, companies like iRobot, Da Vinci Surgical Robots, Jawbone, Qualcomm, etc. were born.

We were actually fortunate enough to get a Phase 1 grant ourselves, and compared to the normal procurement process, the documentation requirements were sooooo much easier (though, still a lot by private sector standards).

My concern is that its one thing that govt participates in hackathons/challenges, but from my experience here in NYC, there needs to be more sustainability programming beyond these events.

One idea is to actually carve out micro-projects from each agencies’ big backlog that are less than the threshold that the big government contractors care about (say <$50k), and then have it offered as a mini-SBIR, or perhaps, even as RFI2 (Request for Ideas/Innovation :slight_smile: ) requests for small civic tech companies during these hackathons/challenges.

(Volkan Unsal) #5

I think the way we think about collaboration is too simplistic. There are several problems with the directory sites like CollabFinder. First, these tools make the work about the project, and force us to push you to come up with a product idea before the problem is ripe in your mind. Second, they do a bad job of cataloguing their members by focusing on skills, rather than values.

Does every civic hacker care about the same things to the same degree? Is every Javascript programmer at the same skill level?

I have always liked the idea of incubating problems rather than solutions. This discussion forum could be a good place to overcome the rigidity of a conventional directory/matchmaking service model for collaboration by encouraging both govvies and civic hackers to organically discover each other through civilized discourse.

In addition to that, though, we need to train our members who have projects about articulating “a theory of change.” That’d be a valuable skill for everyone, but especially for people who want to make an impact. By answering a few questions about the kind of impact you want to have, you are more likely to shepherd the kind of people who are going in the same direction.

(Aidan Feldman) #6

I’m going to pull “OP Privilege” here… let’s tighten this discussion up around the original question:

how can we better connect civic hackers with the relevant people in government (henceforth “govvies”), so that they can help one another?

A few options that have come up:

  • Encourage them to join the Discourse
    • While great, it doesn’t directly help with the “I have a housing-related project…how do I get it in front of someone at NYCHA?” scenario.
    • Enhanced user profiles/browsing could help with this.
  • Get people to sign up for a platform like CollabFinder or Midas
    • I agree with @volkan_unsal’s observation that those sites feel more like “I am looking for a project” rather than “I am open to being contacted”, but that may just be a subtle design/messaging thing.
    • I think BetaNYC has reached discussion medium saturation already…and this is yet another thing.

Anything else?

A small team within 18F (I’ll poke them again to join this conversation):


who are collaborating with a handful of other agencies (see “Midas in Action” section):

Not that I know of, but I don’t really know things.

(Joel Natividad) #7

@afeld, I think we also need to address how to incentivize “govvies” to engage, because its always easier to stay with the status quo of using the traditional procurement process that is just not designed to engage “civvies”, never mind, the “Irrationality of Publishing Open Data” to the typical govvie.

The genius of NYC’s Open Data Law, is that its a law - so there’s a legal obligation to publish open data and not just an executive order that could go away or ignored.

That’s why I cited the SBIR comparison - the agencies covered are required to set-aside ~2.5% of their research budget, much the same way, set-asides are done for Minority and Woman Business Owned enterprises.

A large majority of civvies are largely volunteering their time, and that should be encouraged and celebrated, but the vast majority of these cool civic hacking projects never get past the prototype, even if they meet with govvies after the awards ceremony.

But what about civic tech startups - largely headed by social entrepreneurs? I’d argue that they are a “minority” compared to traditional government contractors.

Or should we just leave sustainable civic innovation to non-profits constantly chasing after grants in one end of the spectrum, and volunteers on the other end churning out projects?

(Aidan Feldman) #8

For-profit entities open a whole can of worms around procurement, bidding, compete-ing, etc., where getting a contract through an “inside connection” could be legally questionable. As I understand it, part of the purpose of the typical RFP/procurement channels are that multiple vendors (theoretically) get a fair shot. Govvies connecting with volunteers (or even non-profits, I imagine) wouldn’t have those same legal restrictions or potential conflicts of interest. Not saying that wouldn’t be important or useful, but is at the very least more complex.

My particular interest is in connecting volunteers/non-profits/journalists with individuals in government, but possible that a single solution could include for startups as well.

(Andrew Nicklin) #9

Just my personal $0.02 here, reflecting on my experiences when I worked for NYC gov. I know I’m not responding to every salient point in this thread.

  1. Procurement, reputation, time, and sponsorship issues are just some of those that come into play when trying to connect with government staff. For example, we were once invited to be a key partner at an event which was being sponsored by companies that were having a significant public policy battle with the city. The event had nothing to do with the policy battle, but to ensure a consistent message from the government, we declined the partnership. In another example, we declined an opportunity to engage simply because we needed to focus on meeting a deadline.

  2. Don’t overlook the considerations that non-profits represent. Non-profits in NYC provide billions of dollars of billable social services on behalf of the city government, under a wide array of contracts. Others are involved in lobbying activities and conversations with their representatives might require public disclosure under lobbying rules and laws. (And let’s not get into how many companies who do business with the city also lobby directly, through coalitions, or by funding “independent” non-profit entities for that purpose.) On top of that, NYC gov is so vast (almost 300,000 people across hundreds of organizational entities) that it is nearly impossible to be sure every base has been covered before crossing the comfort line.

  3. “Rules of engagement” for government folks to collaborate through traditional means (hearings, public meetings, feedback submission forms, contract solicitations) are well-established, backed by formal procedures, and have well-defined roles. Newer forms of collaboration such as crowd-sourcing, hackathons, online forums, and so on, are far less clear. One interesting example of this is the complexity of having public comment threads on a .gov site. When does official moderation cross the line into blocking free speech? Is community/self-moderation acceptable? Should government staff be spending time worrying about that at all? How can they safely navigate the potentially opposing perspectives of the community and their direct managers without alienating either - but also not remaining silent / unresponsive?

Anyway, this all means that a civil servant or public official who engages can feel like they are entering a field full of buried landmines, where one mis-step can produce unpleasant results - not just for them but for the communities they hope to collaborate with. On the flip side, I sometimes felt that heavily formalized communication channels get used by a very small set of people who know they exist and how to manipulate them (both inside and outside of government).

The good news is that pretty much everyone I worked with in NYC gov wanted to do everything in their power to help make the city a better place for New Yorkers. The desire is there, but the “how” is a big opportunity to do more work on - especially when it must be done in a fair and ethical manner.

(Joel Natividad) #10

Last Friday, during the Q&A with Dr. Mashariki, the last question by http://twitter.com/LaiHaobo really resonated with me.

It’s at the 1:25:38 mark here - http://new.livestream.com/internetsociety/codeacrossnyc2015/videos/77735694

He asked about what NYC and NYS can do to not just be a follower, but a leader in CivicTech. He made a comparison to what happened in Silicon Valley in the 60s/70s, and asked if the government is doing anything else to lead the trend, and not just be a me-too i.e. “Silicon Alley”, because “its not just about silicon.”

While he was asking that question, I was vigorously nodding my head in agreement.

Much the same way NYC has enabled various urban innovations pioneered right here in the Big Apple (the first elevators in the US, the first city-wide subway system, etc.), I believe it needs to play a more active role to nurture and grow CivicTech, to enable O’Reilly’s “Government As a Platform” vision.

Already, NYC is leading the charge with its landmark municipal open data law, and NYCBigApps. But as a company that’s a direct product of those programs, I feel that there are still gaps in engagement and more can be done beyond the courtesy meeting.

Of course, these companies still need to win business through their merits, but the qualification process effectively precludes startups. These procedures were put in place as government needs to spend taxpayer dollars wisely, but it seems that procurement has effectively been “captured” by big contractors.

As somebody who’s in an incubator sitting with fellow “traditional” (i.e. not civictech) startups. Fellow co-founders talk about how they gain traction - and often, it involves a company willing to be a beta customer, knowing full-well the risks of the engagement, which they minimize by doing pilots. But by becoming willing guinea pigs, they are uniquely positioned to participate in shaping the product roadmap, and are poised to reap the benefits of such experimentation.

And sometimes, experiments will fail, but since its a pilot, the “damage” is minimized and lessons are learned (Go Fast, Fail Fast). And doesn’t innovation, by definition, require experimentation?

For NYC and NYS, is there a mechanism to do something similar? As we’ve seen with the existing procurement system, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee success - healthcare.gov, CityTime, 911, etc.

Still, I’m hopeful. As @technickle points out, everybody I’ve met in NYC and NYS, without exception, wants to do everything in their power to make New York a better place. Its just that existing procedures restrict innovation.

But as the passage of the open data law, City Record law, etc. demonstrates - big cultural and strategic changes can and will done, and I’m equally hopeful that this conversation factors into “how” that change will be achieved.

I vote CivicTech Alley! :slight_smile:

User surveys for civic projects
(Joel Natividad) #11

@technickle, I truly appreciate the fact that you’re willing to stick your neck out and participate in these discussions, using non-official channels as an experiment, landmines be damned! :grin:

(Frank Hebbert) #12

I’m very skeptical of collabfinder and other technical solutions to facilitating collaboration. This is a people problem.

There is no monolithic government to engage with. But there’s huge potential for civic hackers to connect with ‘govvies’ around specific topic (public housing, buses, etc).

If you’re a hacker with a cool project, how do you find receptive gov people? A few ideas:

Work on something that matters. Starting with a real problem is a good way to ensure there’s sustained interest in using the tool later. Those data vizs aren’t adopted by gov because they don’t meet real needs.

Meet half-way. The domain expertise you must have to successfully work on a problem includes getting familiar with the non-profit and gov players around it, and later that pays off. Lots of interest from gov in talking with smart, well-informed hackers who’ve done their ground work. Limited interest in talking to people who haven’t – there are only so many hours in the day.

Build on the great work of others Non-profits are really great at knowing the policy and people side of issues, but are often weaker on tech – big opportunity for hackers to have an impact and get a lot of recognition. Non-profits bring users and problems and a big bullhorn - just what you need.

Create a virtuous cycle of attention Good projects get attention - through old fashioned channels like journalists at events, and through influential twitterers that gov folk follow, etc.

Ask people to help make connections Word of mouth! Asking here or via other channels for intros/connections. If you’re doing a great job with all of the above, people with connections will do a lot to help you.

The landscape is a bit different for businesses who want to sell to gov. There are possibly opportunities for new showcase tools like citymart to help increase access to vendors, but that’s a different topic.

(Joel Natividad) #13

@fkh, thanks for your insightful perspective. Having been a pioneer in this space, your feedback is most valued.

I’m still relatively new to the CivicTech scene (~2011), and having come from the private sector via NYCBigApps, still learning the ropes.

Citymart is interesting, but it kinda reminds me of the RFP-EZ pilot. We were checking that on a regular basis as it started around the same time we won NYCBigApps, and only a handful of projects were ever listed, until it finally went into hibernation sometime last year.

I checked it again last December, and even the SSL certificate was expired.

Then earlier this year, the website was replaced with a new one under the 18f domain - https://18f.gsa.gov/rfpez/. It listed new procurement related projects that seems promising. Hopefully, under 18F’s stewardship, it reinvents the procurement process at the federal level.

I wonder who’s working with the citymart folks at City Hall… Is NYC even participating?

Would love your perspective too on a municipal innovation unit ala 18F.

(Anton Tarasenko) #14

A development economist here. Academic economists have the same problem of reaching government officials. It’s usually solved through personal connections and reputation.

But civic hackers and academic economists share a fundamental problem: remoteness from everyday government operations. So when we approach officials, they know it’ll take time to make sense out of our ideas. In the end, they prefer insiders, such as permanent government contractors (Booz Allen and others).

It’d be easier to collaborate if officials needed not to make any commitments like explaining why a particular solution won’t work. Plus if volunteers offered solutions that officials really need.

How can it be done? Usually officials already know what they need (or have) to do. So they pick contractors who just do the work described in RFPs. On the other hand, enterprise software covers everyday government needs (see e.g., https://www.g2crowd.com/categories/).

Perhaps most opportunities for volunteers reside where contractors and commercial software don’t fit well: tools that officials need for personal productivity. B2B salespeople don’t pay attention to this, and budgets don’t include this either.

Here I equate engagement and on-demand products aimed at personal needs.

But understanding what government folks want is a standard problem. It’s all those “how to get traction” texts for startup founders.

So either this or government contracting. In the latter case, McKinsey and Booz Allen do government projects for decades. Maybe it’s worth asking them.

(Joel Natividad) #15

Need it be a limited choice between “small productivity tools for govvies” or govt contracting? Isn’t the procurement status quo part of the problem?

Also, having an outsider’s perspective is often required to spark innovation - addressing a problem without assumptions.

Also, what incentives will the permanent govt contractors have to help? I think the system works perfectly well from their perspective when measured by contracts granted and billable hours.

Even in the realm of personal productivity tools - I hear stories of govvies not even being able to sign up for well-known web services like GitHub and Google Docs. What are the chances for a volunteer-created solution?

18F is starting to address agile software devt with initiatives like this:

But its still in the domain of introducing modern agile software devt practices to the “permanent govt contractors”.

18F also did an experiment with micro-purchases to open up contracts to smaller firms. But IMHO, the initial result was disheartening from a sustainability perspective.


Thankfully, per the blogpost, they’ll keep experimenting and tweaking micro-purchases.

(Joel Natividad) #16

@antontarasenko, you may want to check out 18F’s latest micropurchase round. It’d be very interesting to get an economist’s perspective of the experiment:

(Anton Tarasenko) #17

Thanks, Joel. Indeed, interesting.

That’s a mix of RFP and freelance. The best thing about this auction website is that tasks stay below the enterprise level, so small developers can learn what government officials need and make more relevant solutions. But I see just one page of requests, so let’s see if govies will like this tool as well.

(Anton Tarasenko) #18

Did anyone see something reminding a tool for collecting systematic feedback on new ideas (by civic hackers)?

If civic hackers have ideas for govies, they need feedback from more than one city or department (which is usually the case). Like RFP auctions when all firms see the same request and can respond with a price. But in this case, hackers need many public officials to see the idea and respond in some way (at least, upvote or downvote).

So do we have one or not?