Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Governmental Technology Difficulties Abound, Yet the Future Looks Bright

June 5, 2014
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Governmental Technology Difficulties Abound, Yet the Future Looks Bright
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OpenGov aims to rescue the government from their tech troubles.

With a $12 billion budget for 200 major IT programs and a total of $82 billion to spend on IT projects this year, it’s really hard to understand why the government just can’t get it right with digital initiatives. After all, innovations like Facebook have taken off, whereas Healthcare.gov, well, not so much.

According to Fast Company, “the government doesn’t take the same approach to software development that startups do,” explains Matthew McCall, a health technologist who started a well-known petition urging the government to open-source Healthcare.gov when it became obvious that its problems were copious. The government has tens of billions of dollars to ensure success, yet can’t achieve it — while startups with no money often manage to create popular products.

Why does the government have such a problem with technology? Startups are focused on creating a popular product as quickly as possible and once users provide feedback, it can be changed to better suit their needs. The government does the complete opposite of this.

McCall states, “government development focuses more on gathering comprehensive requirements up front, issuing a contract for the work, and managing the contractor during the build out. This ‘big bang’ approach typically means longer development time with little to no customer validation.” Changes are only made if a requirement is no longer valid, which causes developers to no longer focus on the products usefulness.

There are a number of policies in place that make the government different from a startup, like The Paperwork Reduction Act, which prevents developers from asking the public questions about products quickly. In general, many of the governmental policies in place slow down the process of production.

Of course, the government is also more risk-averse, simply by nature because if they get hacked, it is more of a big deal than if a startup was to be hacked.

Fortunately, there’s seems to be a solution this problem. (And no surprise, it’s a start-up.)

OpenGov, a company founded by Zac Bookman and Mike Rosengarten, is helping state and local governments shed their 30-year-old spreadsheets and visualize all data simply with just a few clicks.

MORE: Can a Children’s Book Persuade Girls That Coding Is Cool?

Need more money to control fires? Cities using OpenGov can immediately see how much money has been spent on fire and safety and where they can reallocate money from to help reduce wildfires.

Bookman explains, “there is an epidemic in governments of all shapes and sizes across the country. If you are the mayor of a city and I ask you a basic question about your data like, How much have you spent on police hours over the last five years?’ you probably don’t know of the answer.” With OpenGov, this answer can be found easily.

Major cities like Los Angeles and Palo Alto are already using this to help with city government, as are residents, as OpenGov isn’t just for city officials. Cole explains, “it’s to our benefit as public servants to demystify budget data to rebuild trust through transparency and accountability.”

So, why didn’t the government create this solution earlier?

Often, the problem stems from the lack available talent. The best engineers want to work for companies like Google or Facebook, not the government. Those big companies have better recruitment tactics than the government does, and according to Rosengarten, “if more students understood the problems or that the potential opportunity to solve real hard challenges with the local governments, they would get more excited.”

Although governmental work will never be as sexy as, say, working for Twitter or Square, the government does offer coders with the opportunity to code for a better world.

McCall notes, “if government can attract and retain people who want to make a difference and are given that opportunity, I think it will go a long way.”

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