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How The White House Is Reaching Out To The Tech Community To Hack Government-As-Usual

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, September 25 2012

Todd Park, U.S. Chief Technology Officer, solicits ideas from the crowd. Photo: Sarah Lai Stirland

As politicos ratchet up the election-year rhetoric over the role of the government on the campaign trail, a small group of White House staffers and volunteers from the technology community are quietly getting down to the brass tacks: They’re engaging in what amounts to a national tour to crowdsource outside-the-Beltway talent in the ongoing quest to make impenetrable government processes more accessible.

“One of our primary goals here today is to get your help,” Todd Park, the nation’s chief technology officer, told a beer hall-sized room of a couple of hundred entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and coders last Thursday in downtown San Francisco. They had all gathered at the global headquarters of Code for America, the three-year-old non-profit housed in an old leather factory that’s popularized the notion of transformative coding as public service for government.

The White House Office and Science and Technology Policy had parachuted into town last Thursday on the first stop of a cross-country tour to solicit ideas from the nation’s entrepreneurs and technologists on how to “disrupt” government. The first plank of that plan: Recruit 18 “innovation fellows,” put them inside federal agencies and set them to work trying to improve a key government process.

The White House technology leaders and a few members of the fellows working on the five initiatives — the Blue Button for America project, Open Data, RFP-EZ, MyGov, and the 20% Initiative — were there to explain the projects and ask for feedback.

“We’ve set up Twitter accounts, we’ve set up the ability to get e-mail updates, we’ve set up platforms like Ideascale to get extra feedback, but we also thought, after someone suggested this, that it would actually be a great idea to do a tour, because we’ve found that even in this Facebook, Twitter world, actually getting together with people in person has enormous power,” Park said in an interview. “From the beginning of the program, we said it’s not just about bringing fellows into the government – it’s also about engaging innovators across the country, who are really passionate about the mission of these projects, and getting them to contribute their expertise, and their ideas.”

Most of the people in attendance seemed to have arrived there by word-of-mouth. Few members of the press were in attendance. And it was easy to see why. The OSTP had meant the afternoon session to be a working one, with frank discussions. After an initial introduction of the projects, and a brief speech by San Francisco’s Mayor Ed Lee, the room split up into working groups.

One of those groups that afternoon focused on RFP-EZ, a project that hopes to make government procurement more efficient. In the course of the development of the open government movement in the past few years, many web developers have been frustrated by government procurement processes. Procurement rules simply don’t seem to make sense in many situations, and can make the government's business inaccessible for small web development shops. Sometimes government officials aren't aware of the difference between the services they're getting and how much more they could get for the same money.

Adam Becker, a web developer and one of the fellows working with the Small Business Administration on the pilot project, told the audience at a presentation that he was distressed to hear comments from government officials such as: “I’ve never heard of a Web site costing less than $150,000,” or “I got a really good rate from my vendor for putting up that YouTube video.”

RFP-EZ, he said, is meant to create an online marketplace for government procurement officials to purchase web services – setting up websites, graphic design and social media - from small web development companies as well as larger ones.

“We just want to show them this can be done for less than $150,000,” Becker said.

And for developers, he said, “we want to make it easy to contract, and not have to wade through 20 PDFs.”

The RFP-EZ team are creating templates on social code sharing site GitHub that will help small businesses more quickly apply for contracts. They’re creating “Statement of Work” templates that vendors need to make to describe the scope of their projects and the deliverables. They’re also trying to streamline and automate as much as possible the process of making bids for business, and for monitoring the approval process for those bids.

The fellows also want to create a “portfolio browser” for procurement officials to bring more transparency to the marketplace for web services.

He ended his presentation by telling the audience that all the team’s work is viewable on GitHub, and by urging members of the audience to come and bid on projects.

“You guys can all help us with these projects and tell us our code sucks.”

The room of about 50 people had a lot of comments and questions, and to be sure, Becker didn’t have all the answers. For example, someone wanted to know whether the federal government would own all of the intellectual property for their work. Another person wanted to know whether there would be onerous qualification requirements in order to do business with the federal government. In one case when the would-be contractor bid for business, the local government had required them to have $100,000 of commercial car insurance. The contractor didn’t even have any “commercial cars.”

Janice Fraser, a web designer, wanted to know what kind of outreach the White House was planning in order to make design firms aware of the initiative. That drew a blank look from Becker, at which point Park, who was sitting on on the session, jumped in.

“What blogs do they read?” he asked.

Another session participant suggested building an API to marketplaces such as oDesk and Elance, and building a process for performing due diligence on the firms bidding on projects.

Many of the entrepreneurs who attended said that they found the event helpful, and that they were glad that the fellows reached out even as they were developing their projects.

“We all have basically the same motive, which is basically trying to help the people we’re trying to serve,” said Caitria O’Neill, chief executive officer of Recovers.org, a disaster preparedness startup being incubated in Code for America’s Accelerator program. “But you can really help them to understand more sides to the problem just by interacting with them, and that was what this event was for me.”

On the reverse side of the coin, O’Neill said that she found the Open Data and MyGov sessions most useful for her company.

Recovers.org licenses its software out to small towns as software as a service, and is designed to help towns and their citizens prepare for natural disasters by helping them to organize volunteers, manage donations, and give them information on how to be prepared or to get help when tragedy strikes.

O’Neill said that the presentations helped her to think through her site’s approach to providing information. Her company provides information on the basis of a user’s location, but MyGov focuses on a person’s identity and location as well.

O’Neill said that she hopes that the federal government will make more disaster risk information more accessible.

All this is far from abstract for O’Neill. Her company arose out of her experience leading her local community’s response to a tornado that tore through her town of Monson, Mass. The tornado tore off the roof of her house.

“There’s still no map where you can look at the disaster risk of the United States from floods to fires,” she said. “There was a decent one by the New York Times, but the government has all this data, but we can’t even access it right now. If the federal data were more accessible, more and more people would use it.”

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