Friday, January 09, 2009

How to save $2.6M in government by spending $50,000 - engage the community

I've been reading an interesting article about Vivek Kundra, the CIO for Washington District and an advocate for using new technology to cut government costs.

The Washington Post article, D.C.'s Kinetic Tech Czar, talks about how Kundra has re-energised Washington's government IT approach. As described in the article,

Kundra has introduced popular consumer tools to bureaucratic processes, runs his office like a tech start-up and works by the mantra that citizens are "co-creators rather than subjects."

Where in many governments around the world this would lead to him being shown the door, in the US it had led to him being invited to be one of President Obama's Technical Policy Advisors and his approach may be copied by the incoming US Chief Technology Officer.

Why has his approach been successful?

It's saved money and empowered both government employees and citizens.

One example illustrated in the article was his contest 'Apps for Democracy',

In October, he launched a contest called "Apps for Democracy" to encourage developers to create applications for the Web and cellphones to give District residents access to city data such as crime reports and pothole repair schedules.

"I expected to get maybe 10 entries, but we got 47 apps in 30 days," Kundra said. He said he spent $50,000 for the contest and prize money, and estimates he saved $2.6 million over what it would have cost to hire contract developers.

He also stays in close personal touch with what is happening across the commercial sector, regularly consulting venture capitalists and computer science professors, and spending time visiting the research labs of top companies such as Apple, Cisco and Google.

Kundra's approach is one I'd like to see adopted in Australia. An approach which aims to harness innovation and open the doors to government data. One that acknowledges that to maximise customer outcomes collaboration is at least as powerful a tool as control.

To give the final words to the article,
Arun Gupta, a partner at venture capital firm Columbia Capital who often joins Kundra's brainstorming sessions with District employees, said "there's normally a dividing line between the public and private sectors -- a different culture and mindset." A government agency could take years to make changes a start-up would do in weeks, Gupta said. "Vivek is someone who can bridge those sectors to really unleash innovation."

That strategy is likely what Obama is trying to replicate in the federal government, Gupta said. Giving citizens access to government data and letting entrepreneurs and other firms develop new technologies are considered cornerstones of Obama's agenda.

"You have to have the confidence to say, 'I don't need to control everything,' " Gupta said. "That's very much a Web 2.0 mentality. Is that the panacea to everything? Probably not. But it's a step in the right direction."

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