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How Acting Like a Tech Entrepreneur Can Improve Government Services

By letting the public test unfinished websites and apps, agencies are completing projects faster and more cheaply.

by / January 2, 2013
Photo by Jessica Mulholland

Can government agencies create better technology by acting a little more like Silicon Valley startups? That’s the idea a handful of cities are running with -- one used by some of the nation’s hippest companies -- in an effort to build offerings that work better and reach citizens faster.

The thinking goes something like this: Release an admittedly unfinished piece of technology -- a new website or maybe a mobile application -- to the public, and let them test it and suggest improvements. Then, incorporate those suggestions into the product until it’s considered completely refined. The concept, encapsulated in the 2010 book “The Lean Startup” by tech entrepreneur Eric Ries, is common in the commercial technology industry, where companies routinely release prototype or “beta” versions of new products to test consumer reaction and work out bugs. Now the idea is gaining a surprisingly strong following in government.

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The city of Palo Alto, Calif., is stealing an idea from the commercial technology industry to improve services for its residents. In this video, city CIO Jonathan Reichental offers lessons learned from Palo Alto’s use of Lean Startup principles during several recent technology projects. The Lean Startup approach – which lets users test unfinished versions of new apps and websites – is routine in the commercial space. Now it’s catching on in government. 

One proponent is Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto, the community at the heart of California’s technology industry. Reichental says his city needed a better way to keep up with demands for new technology, so he reached out to its decidedly geeky population. “In government, we’re really faced with a history of projects that take a long time and when they’re done aren’t close enough to our requirements,” he says. “We need to look at ways to move from idea to execution much faster.”

Palo Alto put Ries’ concept into action earlier this year to finish a long-running website redesign. Although the project was nearly done, a continuous cycle of internal changes kept the city from wrapping it up. “We could have spent another year making it perfect,” Reichental says. But instead, the city released the unfinished site side-by-side with its existing website, inviting users to try it and offer a critique. Citizens eagerly tested out the new site and offered their feedback, which was used to fine tune the project. Not only was the project finished much faster, he says, the final product worked better too.

The concept doesn’t only work in Silicon Valley. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created in 2010 by the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, used Ries’ principles to design new financial disclosure forms and create a “Know Before You Owe” website for financial consumers. The agency reportedly synthesized more than 13,000 user comments into the final products. The concept also helped the Obama administration launch the website in just 90 days and at a fraction of the normal cost, author Ries said in an interview earlier this year.

After completing Palo Alto’s website, Reichental used the approach to design an online open data platform that gives citizens access to city spending information and other statistics. Next year, he expects to enlist residents’ help in creating a mobile application that will let them perform a range of city government transactions on a smartphone or tablet.

Based on his experience, Reichental offers this advice: Start with a few low-risk projects, make it very clear that you’re releasing an unfinished product and make it simple for users to submit feedback. The process, he adds, isn’t a good fit for heavyweight projects like replacing financial or human resources systems -- those, it seems, will remain as slow and costly as ever. But Reichental says he’s at least considering whether Ries’ concepts can be applied to most new technology initiatives undertaken by the city.

He says the approach demands a new way of thinking from both the city and residents, but it’s becoming more commonplace. “Big name companies -- Google and others -- release their products in an early stage and they gather a lot of feedback. People are becoming conditioned to be more comfortable with it.”

So, perhaps it comes down to this: If you want citizens to be happier with your technology, let them tell you what they like.

Photo by Jessica Mulholland

This story was originally published in the January issue of GOVERNING magazine

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