Government Technology

How Acting Like a Tech Entrepreneur Can Improve Government Services

January 2, 2013 By

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.

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