SV vs DC

I’m sure most of you have been following the DC versus Silicon Valley battle that’s cringe worthy and serious at the same time.

Washington Post recently reported :

“The White House plans to convene technology giants including Amazon.com, Google, Microsoft and IBM on Monday and urge them to make it easier for their workers to leave behind their big paychecks and snazzy office perks and do brief tours of duty in government. For the Trump administration, the hope is that private companies might encourage employees to take leaves of absence to help modernize state and federal agencies — bringing a Silicon Valley sensibility to challenges like improving veterans' health care and combating cybersecurity threats.”

I think this is an encouraging step. This is of course nothing too unique or new but I would rather have continual push to bridge the gap in the hopes of something meaningful actually working out than not have any dedicated effort in this direction.

I interviewed Athena Kan, who is extremely knowledgeable about all things govtech. She is currently on the investment team at 8VC and is the co-founder of Coding It Forward. She talked about various projects she’s been involved with working with government agencies, why she started Coding It Forward, intricacies of govtech landscape, progress being made in govtech, obstacles in adoption of tech by agencies, and some interesting tech projects at local and state levels. She also shares her thoughts on how government and private sector could work together to solve massive societal problems & conduct business, level of enthusiasm amongst student entrepreneurs in govtech, what investors and tech companies could do to move govtech forward, and much more.

The interview is quite long but here some interesting bits :

Sar : The line of questioning by the Congressmen and Congresswomen at Zuckerberg’s testimony tells us everything we need to know about the relationship between government and tech. How can we bridge the knowledge gap for sound policy making and collaborative progress in the digital age? I worry that if they can’t figure out how a social network works, they are going to have a really hard time making policies around complex realities of self-driving and biotech. It felt like Zuckerberg and the elected officials barely spoke the same language.

Athena : We need more people well-versed in technology in government! TechCongress is doing an amazing job bringing tech-savvy Congressional aides to inform legislators. OpenGov Foundation is building tools for constituents to text their Congressmen and Congresswomen. Trump recently passed an executive order to give agency CIOs more power. We’re starting to see a shift, but we need more tech-savvy people making policy and informing policymakers and more technology offices set up in government agencies.

Sar : What are some major obstacles that explain why the government has failed to keep up with technological progress? Government’s failure in providing modern, easy-to-use services do not just result in poor user experiences but has some real consequences. For instance, not making it simpler to fill out online forms for getting food assistance has some grave negative consequences on children.

Athena : The biggest thing is lack of in-house technical talent. There are plenty of amazing civil servants in government, but with no one well-versed in what good software looks like, governments have to outsource every technical project to outside contractors and leave it totally up to contractors to build software with little, if any, accountability. As a result of that, you have Request for Proposals (RFPs) structured with severely misaligned incentives: vendors often write RFPs for government that they then bid on and win, non-technical government staff prescriptively define project deliverables — which doesn’t allow for any kind of agile, and government pays vendors more if they are over time and/or over budget. And, because vendors spend many years building software without input from or conversations with the agency, when it comes time for the vendor deliver, the software often doesn’t work.

You also have a super risk-averse culture in government such that many people are skeptical of any change in processes or tools. Their workflows have been working fine for years and they’d get fired if they tried something new and failed, so they just keep doing what they’re doing and actively stop other people from trying to shake things up.

Sar : Increasingly, students are choosing to become designers, engineers and business operations people in tech over bankers and consultants. How can government agencies compete with tech giants and startups to attract students to build modern software products?

Athena : This is idealistic, but I think government can more easily attract technical talent if it just tells the truth: working in government will be the hardest job that a person in tech will have. Not every candidate will be able to handle it, but the right people want to be challenged and feel like their work matters — they’re going to touch the lives of literally every American. It’d also help if government leaders reduced arbitrary hiring requirements, shortened application response times, allowed for remote work, and gave employees executive cover so that they can work without being too hindered by unnecessary bureaucracy.

Sar : What are some of the most interesting tech initiatives or data projects going on in the government at the federal or state level right now?

Athena : Good question, and innovation is happening at the local level as well! There are some sexier initiatives such as DIUx (Department of Defense’s investment arm based in Silicon Valley), Austin is giving homeless residents unique identifiers on the blockchain, and Lincoln, NE is implementing an on-demand autonomous vehicle service. That said, the initiatives I think will be most impactful change the way that government buys and builds technology: California’s Child Welfare Digital Services bought a new system with multiple small, agile contracts instead of one large, waterfall one and FedRAMP authorizes cloud services so government agencies can more quickly adopt them. Government agencies US Digital Service and 18F are also bringing hundreds of talented technical staff into government to build better digital services. They’re working on projects such as the beautifully-designed vets.gov and single sign-on for every government website.

Sar : What roles do you think various stakeholders (ie. universities, tech companies and investors) should play in modernizing how the government works?

Athena : Tech companies that don’t explicitly focus on government should realize that government is a lucrative vertical to expand into! There’s an opportunity for huge, recurring contracts, but many companies lack the awareness or expertise to bid on them. AWS, GitHub, Docker, Slack, and Stripe have all sold to government. They can start by trying to get approved by FedRAMP. More generally, tech companies should encourage employees to do a “tour of duty” within government. A lot of US Digital Service and 18F employees came from Google etc. and it makes a huge difference if they can return to their job after a 12- or 24-month long stint. In return, employees come back more well-rounded, thoughtful, and fulfilled.

Investors: I once asked a well-known investor what it would take for him to invest in a govtech company, and he answered that he never would. Investors, if they’re as risk-taking and contrarian as they suggest, should consider investing in the $200B industry that will only grow!