When Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries started writing his book The Lean Startup, he had no idea he’d ever be talking about the public sector. The Lean Startup, after all, is all about creating rapid prototypes that test market assumptions, using customer feedback in an effort to evolve design faster than more traditional product development practices, and getting new ideas into the marketplace quickly — all of which run counterintuitively to the way government works. Yet Ries was in for a surprise.

At about the same time Ries was working on his book, the federal government was developing initiatives that would eventually align the two perfectly. On his first full day in office, President Barack Obama signed a memorandum on transparency and open government, calling for a more participatory government to tap into the expertise of the American people when addressing the biggest challenges facing the country. Later, Obama issued an executive order calling on federal agencies to streamline service delivery and improve customer service. Noting the dramatic advances in customer service by other sectors, the executive order challenged federal agencies to “improve the customer service experience, especially through the effective utilization of technology and innovation.”

With these and other new policies paving the way for a fresh approach to the way federal government does business, all that was needed was a chance to put them into play. That opportunity arose in July 2010, when Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act into law. Among other things, the law mandated the creation of a new federal agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which would be tasked with protecting American citizens from predatory lending by financial services companies. Recognizing the opportunity, Obama called on then-CTO Aneesh Chopra to devise some innovative approaches. Although The Lean Startup was not yet published, Ries was well known for his concepts, and Chopra reached out and connected the dots.

“I was surprised at first to hear of the interest,” said Ries. “Yet here was the federal government talking about using some of these ideas, and they were quite serious about getting some value out of them.”

Together, Ries and Chopra began to view the CFPB as a startup, and examined how lean startup principles could be applied and technology could be used to make the agency more efficient and cost-effective. “Some of the principles include treating the new endeavor as an experiment, identifying the elements of the plan that are assumptions rather than facts, and figuring out ways to test them,” Ries said. “Basically the idea was to build a minimum viable product and have the agency up and running on a minor scale long before the official plan was set in motion. After all, once an agency is up and running with a $500 million budget and a large staff, altering the plan would be incredibly expensive and time consuming.”

If they could establish a clearly defined problem, recruit a small, nimble team of innovators to design an innovative product, and then rapidly learn from public feedback, Chopra and Ries thought the CFPB might be the right place to demonstrate the merits of a lean startup approach by government.

One of the first major undertakings was to combine two federally mandated disclosure forms: the Truth in Lending form and the Good Faith Estimate. The CFPB wanted to make the new combined disclosure form clearer to consumers and lenders alike. Applying lean startup principles, the bureau developed a website called “Know Before You Owe,” which offered a simple gaming dynamic to generate data on what worked and what didn’t. The website launched in May 2011 with two draft designs accessible online. The public was then called upon to experiment with the site and provide feedback. The CFPB built tools to help make sense of the feedback and synthesized more than 13,000 user comments, refining the forms with each participatory session. “Iterating against user feedback and using technology to open the design process has been part of a broad collaborative approach at the CFPB,” Chopra said in a blog post about the project. “It has been so successful that the CFPB has expanded the idea to college financial aid letters and credit card agreements.”

Lean startup principles also were applied in the development of healthcare.gov, which was launched in just 90 days and at a fraction of the cost the federal government often spends on such endeavors. “The first version didn’t have much functionality, but it was enough for the agency to start getting feedback from citizens about how they would use it,” said Ries. “After all, if something gets built without anyone ever having seen it or without ever getting any user feedback, then what’s the point? You can build something no one wants and no one uses, and it becomes a complete waste of money and time.”

Ries said the lean startup approach to healthcare.gov unveiled other benefits too. “In the user testing and feedback stage, they found that the specific kinds of information people were looking for was quite unexpected,” he said. For example, health-care companies aren’t legally required to disclose certain data about their plans, but Ries said that based on citizen searches, that data proved extremely important. “There was no regulatory power to force the companies to supply that data, but once it became obvious how important it was to citizens, there was leverage to go to the insurance companies and push the issue.”

Ultimately the insurance companies agreed to provide the data. “When there are real-life facts and data behind what people want, it can enable things that may not have been possible before,” Ries said.

The federal government can point to several achievements utilizing lean startup principles, but can other levels of government also apply them successfully?

Jonathan Reichental is the CIO of Palo Alto, Calif. When he started with the city late last year, Reichental naturally expected to find Palo Alto, with its worldwide reputation as a high-tech leader, to be high-tech as well. What he found was quite the opposite. “The IT organization in the city did not align with the city’s brand,” said Reichental. “It was an old world IT department, but the awareness of the need for change was there. They wanted to take some risks and turn things around.”

Since then, Reichental, a former private-sector CIO, has turned the model upside down, using many lean startup ideas. “The heart of the lean startup is to go to market with the most basic viable product, get feedback, improve it, and get to a place where you are quickly competing in the marketplace and getting market share,” he said. “We found the concept resonates well in Palo Alto. This is not a passive community. Citizens here like to have a say in what we do. We don’t want to study a concept for 18 months while neighbor cities leapfrog ahead of us.”

In 2008, Reichental said the city released a new website that wasn’t well received. “People had a lot of issues with it,” he said, “so it was eventually taken offline and many months were spent rewriting code and fixing things.”

As city CIO, Reichental examined the site and did some quick work to bring it up to par with surrounding cities. He then suggested Palo Alto go with a lean startup approach, re-releasing the site as a beta and getting input and feedback from the public before going live. “We asked the public to try it and tell us if they could find what they wanted. What was missing?” he said. “We’ve been pleased with the level of engagement. People feel they have a voice, and it’s allowed us to use a low-risk approach to get an enormous amount of feedback before our big go-live.”

Reichental and other city government officials were so happy with the results that they’ve employed the lean approach in numerous other instances. “We’re still at the beginning of this journey,” Reichental said. “In a year, we’ll have a lot more to talk about, but even in these early stages, it’s redefining how we operate.” Palo Alto is a well run city, he said, but it tends to approach problems with the typical government mentality: Study the problem, bring in consultants, present the information — very deliberate and very long. “With the pace at which we live today, it’s not the right approach and it doesn’t meet citizens’ expectations.”

In January, Los Angeles also used some lean startup principles as it prepared the first major update to its website in 14 years. The city launched a beta version of LAcity.org in November and asked users to provide feedback.

What if a government agency wants to apply some of the lean startup principles, but isn’t ready or able to fully commit?

According to Chris Vein, deputy CTO at the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, the federal government has used some lean concepts in slightly different ways to improve internal processes at federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “In those cases, it wasn’t about using the full lean startup approach to launch a new product or service, but more about improving an internal business process,” said Vein, who first started employing lean startup principles when he was CIO of San Francisco. “For example, at the FDA, we looked at how we could consider and approve new medical devices in a faster, more streamlined way. How can we improve the internal processes to make important new devices available faster, to keep people involved with making or selling such devices employed, and yet still do a thorough job of protecting the American public? It’s not a pure lean startup approach, but we took some of the concepts and used them in a way that made sense for the individual government agencies.”

Meanwhile, some private-sector companies are providing hybrid approaches that may give government agencies even more options. uTest is a privately held corporation based in Southborough, Mass., that describes itself as “the world’s largest marketplace for software testing services.” Matt Johnston, uTest’s chief marketing officer, said that while it’s common for government agencies to contract their software testing needs to large IT firms, much of that testing takes place within the confines of a quality assurance lab and may be restricted to a small number of geographical locations. Using a crowdsourcing model, uTest’s team of more than 50,000 quality assurance professionals takes apps into real-world situations where they’re likelier to encounter real-world problems. “By testing under these conditions, the testers are better able to identify bugs and issues that may not have otherwise arisen,” Johnston said.

uTest has worked with several U.S. universities and government agencies in the UK. “The model is very flexible and provides an opportunity to solve a lot of problems before something is formally released to the public,” said Johnston. “For an entity that wants to explore lean principles, it’s an outstanding way to bring that quick-to-market method to the testing side of applications.”

While it appears that lean startup principles are finding a place in government, Ries cautions that to be successful, the principles must be applied in the right place, at the right time and in the right way. “The most common problem that occurs with this approach is that people get the answer to the wrong question,” he said.

Ries believes the root of any new project is changing human behavior. “It’s about setting a goal that can be measured, identifying leap-of-faith assumptions, and working backward to say, ‘How do we start testing those assumptions as fast as possible?’ It’s about identifying a specific thing to test and building the smallest increment needed to test that,” he said. “But the human mind is challenged by this — most of us naturally prefer to try to do everything all at once.”

For governments being pushed to do more with less, adopting methods that shorten the path to a solution and allow quick iteration is huge, said David Binetti, CEO of Votizen, whose tools led to the first bill driven into the U.S. Senate by social media alone. Binetti pivoted Votizen several times from a social network of verified voters to the first social lobbying platform in American history.

But Binetti said government must first overcome some obstacles. “I think the jury is still out as to whether lean can really apply well to government. Some systemic changes may be needed to do it well,” he said. “Taking chances in the public sector is not normally rewarded, so these types of approaches can be tougher to pull off. And government is often hamstrung by rules and regulations, with a procurement process that is not set up for rapid decisions.”

But the federal government appears to be dedicated to the cause and continues to push lean startup principles. At the 2012 South by Southwest conference, federal CTO Todd Park presented a keynote during the lean startup track. During the presentation, Park talked about real-life examples of times and places the feds have put the principles into action. And ultimately, lean startup ideas fit well with the open government and open innovation principles being pushed within federal government today, Vein said. “Good ideas come from everywhere. It’s all about figuring out how technology can be used to enable getting those good ideas and cheaper solutions to market faster.”

Further demonstrating their commitment to the entrepreneurial approach, federal CIO Steven VanRoekel and Park recently announced a White House-sponsored innovation fellows program designed to encourage entrepreneurs to work for federal agencies for six-month timespans to help solve a variety of data-related challenges.

In the end, Ries said success with the lean startup approach is less about what type of organization you’re in and more about how you approach the problem at hand. “It’s about figuring out how to make resources available, how to structure the team, what metrics will be used, etc.”

While those elements do not guarantee success, he said, the lack of them guarantees failure. “Think big, start small, scale fast and be flexible,” Ries said. “Life’s too short to have no impact.”

Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer