goodtech 01: forget the feds, and other good ideas

Welcome, friends, and happy first weeks of summer or midsommar, if you’re in those parts of the world! My journey from public to tech is official: I started this week at On Deck. I’m learning lots of no-code and finding it surprisingly reassuring that I can apply so much of what I did with public learning and education programs to this work.

This week is the first real issue for this new project and I’m so grateful that so many of you have already started to follow along – thank you, thank you! Let’s dive in!

💡 Big ideas

Deep Dive Topic of the Week: Forget the Feds

TL;DR: Forget the federal government of whatever country you’re in and remember that there are literally thousands of smaller government units out there. (Pro tip: they’re often more nimble, agile, and willing to try new things, too.)

To start us off right for the bigger industry discussions we’ll be having in coming weeks, I wanted to outline the way ideas and innovations are tested and implemented by government units. (This is framed from the American system, although many other countries have similar systems that use different terminology.)

The federal government is the big customer everyone thinks about for B2G. And please don’t get me wrong – there are lots of passionate, dedicated federal public servants in most countries. But scale matters. National governments are restricted by decades of frameworks, legal authorizations and regulations that simply weren’t created to move as fast as either technology or the population demands we’re currently facing.

To fix that, at least in the US and in many other countries, we have a framework of smaller governments, closer to people + problems, that test and iterate both new solutions and solutions to new problems – which aren’t always the same thing.

At the bottom of the structure we have local governments, industry-specific authorities (think water & sewer), local education districts, and other units typically serving a city, county, or small geographic areas.

These are the innovation labs. They test things. They see what works. They address new problems, because they’re the frontline for where people connect to the institutions that serve them. Then, as they get data, understand issues, and iterate, those ideas get passed up to state or regional governments, through a combination of politics and policies. As states and larger agencies begin to incorporate those solutions and test them, then the federal government begins to take note.

This isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually foundational to a public system that places risk aversion as a higher priority than innovation — because trust us, you really don’t necessarily want your government, which is running things on behalf of hundreds of thousands of people, to run straight in to the next big thing without some testing and planning first.

If you’re in tech, and you’re working on a big idea (like those linked below), don’t forget:

  • There are over 87,000 local, municipal, state and regional agencies in the U.S alone.
  • Before the pandemic, those agencies spent over $1.4 trillion annually on tech products, hardware, software, and services.
  • Even if you don’t make govtech or civictech, remember that these agencies need both infrastructure and programming to support a range of services in education, transportation, water, libraries, waste management, emergency management, and so much more.
  • To do that, they: send emails, have customer service divisions, need websites and CRMs and apps, run recruitments, and do most of the other things startups create for B2C or B2B.
  • They’re also on the frontlines of trying to solve the biggest crises of our time, from climate change to disaster management to resource allocation, in a rapidly changing world.
  • Local governments now often face more risks from security issues and digital threats – not just in the widely reported stories about ransomware hijackings (see: Atlanta) but also in keeping aging systems secure with expanding workforce numbers and the transition to remote work.
  • Local govs skew much younger than the federal or state agencies you’re familiar with – and they’re more diverse, on purpose.

🥑 Holy guacamole, that might actually work

This week’s crazy idea (that’s caused a lot of very loud discussion in my circles) is that all local governments should outsource their IT, from Dr. Alan Shark:

As local governments continue to “do the very best they can,” it is no longer enough. In the end IT performance is critical to every aspect of government operations and service delivery. The outsourcing of IT, in whole or in part, is one such option that must be considered. The pandemic taught us the need for greater resilience and hopefully we have learned that we need to be prepared for the next unexpected event. Read the rest here.

There are good arguments on both sides — but personally, rather than a wholesale outsourcing, I’m curious about the rise of no-code solutions and wonder if that could be something all staff were trained to utilize and create, instead of simply allowing software to eat government, too. Please reply with your read on this or bring it to next month’s tech salon – scroll down for details!


  • Tractable, a new AI startup for accident and disaster recovery, is currently marketed towards insurance companies. What if something like this were available to first responders and emergency management systems?
  • We’re short on women in both government and tech. How would the world change if we fixed that?
  • We’re assuming AI can solve problems better with more data. But as Marianne Bellotti pointed out in OneZero, people don’t make better decisions when given more data, so why do we assume A.I. will?

🚀 Moonshot

One of the issues we face – a lot – in local gov is access to data that’s accurate and timely (read: not assembled by the federal gov, unfortunately – happy to TL;DR some data problems for you in the next issue).

CivicPulse, founded by three Stanford PhDs, aims to change that by regularly surveying thousands of local government employees and making that data open and available. This is useful not just for associations or groups of governments but for tech startups, too — it’s so far the only open way I know of other than building relationships in associations to keep an eye on the pulse of local government innovations.

This week’s second moonshot, because it’s too good not to share: regardless of your politics, there’s about to be a boatload of money available to local & state governments for roads, water, broadband, and other infrastructure projects (and some other weirdly non-related things, of course, because that’s how Congress works).

What would you contribute to a $1 trillion spend on infrastructure? How could you help fix infrastructure with a tech solution? (Here’s a podcast discussion if you need to think on that for a minute.) Share your ideas — we’d all love to hear them.

🥂 Upcoming Events

NEW EVENT ALERT! Our next goodtech salon – where we all grab a glass of our preferred beverage and talk to total strangers on the internet about how we might change the world with tech applied to public problems – is coming up soon!

July 27, 2021 | 6-7 p.m. EDT | reply to this email for a calendar invite!

📚 Knowledge Stew

AUDIO: the best local gov podcast out there: GovLove, by ELGLI’d recommend this latest: Climate Change & City Resilience Officers, with Broward County, FL.

READ (or read the review): A great double-book review from Kyle Allen-Neilsen of Book Pairings on both The Fifth Risk and The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

Thanks for joining me for the first issue. Coming up, we’ve got a ton of great reads headed your way July 15. Please let me know what you think, share your ideas, and send over topics you’re curious to learn more about!

– Emily

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