Government and tech startups don’t have anything in common. By their very nature, government organizations are typically huge, slow-moving bureaucracies built to deliver continuity. Startups are disruptive risk takers that succeed by shaking up the status quo. Yet both sides need each other in both obvious and surprising ways.
Finding ways to bridge the divide promises to bring new innovation and efficiency to government and help get more people involved in the political process. For startups, working with government agencies will open new markets and growth potential. But making it happen won’t be easy.
At the Tech Policy Summit in Napa, Calif., this week, experts discussed how the government, tech industry, investors and consumer advocates could collaborate.
“There’s a communication that needs to happen where government is a little bit more willing to talk about the challenges that we face, so developers can make better apps,” Shannon Spanhake, deputy innovation officer for San Francisco, said in a panel called "Using Technology to Empower Civic Engagement."
While government needs tech innovators, learning how to work effectively within the bureaucracy is daunting, said panelist Marci Harris, founder and chief executive of POPVOX. POPVOX is a nonpartisan online service that people and advocacy groups can use to contact Congress on behalf of a cause.
With all of government’s insider acronyms and archaic processes, “there’s an intimidation factor that we have to get over,” Harris said.
A Two-Way Street
Getting over the hurdles will take work by both government and startups. Government needs to make it easier for startups by reforming the procurement process, which heavily favors established tech companies. Even when they offer attractive solutions and prices, startups are often shunned by government agencies who worry about whether a vendor is in it for the long haul.
“Government can’t take a risk with taxpayers' money to procure a service or a technology from a startup that might not be there in two years or doesn’t have the infrastructure to provide the type of service that we need,” Spanhake said.
Another issue is that many tech companies specialize in software built for business applications, so they have to do extensive work to make them suitable for government use, Spanhake said. That can be an issue for newer, smaller vendors.
Startups hoping to sell civic applications should consider partnering with approved government contractors to get their foot in the door, said Dave Binetti, co-founder and chief executive of voter social network Votizen. Without an approved partner, “it doesn’t matter how better, faster and cheaper you are; you literally won’t be able to sell it.”
Not All About Selling
But Binetti also placed some responsibility on the government to make better use of startups and their technology. “If people come up with really cool and innovative ideas, [officials] should make it easier for that to become a part of the institution of government,” he said.
Binetti called on the government to standardize data and make it available to developers to build apps that make the information useful to citizens. “Just release the data, let the data be standardized and have a policy that we’re really going to concentrate on standardizing our interfaces,” he said.
San Francisco is trying to take the lead in this regard. Since 2009, this city has made available to developers a wealth of data covering everything from transit and parking meters to public artwork. Today, the city has a catalog of some 70 apps built on that data at zero cost to the city, Spanhake said.
That approach leverages the strengths of both government and the startup community.
“It’s not really government’s role - at least local government - to [build apps], but more to enable people,” Spanhake said.
Photo by Antone Gonsalves. Pictured left to right: Dave Binetti, Marci Harris, Shannon Spanhake.