How to Approach a Bureaucrat

Posted on June 15, 2017

This is the first installment of a new blog series by Mai-Ling Garcia about her adventures as the Online Engagement Manager for the city of Oakland, California. Follow Mai-Ling on Twitter and Facebook!

Here’s my advice to civic techies hoping to work with government:

You are an entrepreneur. You have relentless enthusiasm for your technology solution that will fix government. You’ve probably spent dozens of hours creating an amazing presentation, crafting beautiful code, and perfecting your elevator pitch.

I empathize. I, too, want to fix things.

Recently, I was invited to speak at a conference about my experiences with civic techies like yourself. As a bureaucrat, I like to meet cool people like you.

However, I have to admit, our encounters are often awkward, fleeting, and often less than meaningful. Particularly when peddling, there are a few things that would help ease our encounters:

Have a good, working product.

Sounds basic, but the reality is, that I regularly receive inquiries and meeting requests for SaaS products that aren’t even usable. And when I mean not usable, I mean the product ‘demo’ is really a conversation about your company vision — the development of your great idea — with a few mockups peppered in between. Maybe. That’s not usable. It’s not iterative. It’s your idea wrapped in fancy packaging with nothing in the box. Your product doesn’t actually exist. Unless I have the role of grant maker, I probably need to solve some very specific problems — not subsidize the development of your prototype

Make a partnership proposal valuable.

You want to be able to put our government logo on your website and investor presentations. You want us to serve as a reference to other government agencies. However, what the bureaucrat wants is a win. If your idea is totally new, out the box, and largely untested, we probably don’t have the budget to pay for your product. You know this. So you ask if we can “partner.”

However, outside of being your new test subject, I need to know: What is the immediate public benefit? Is this a good return on my investment of time? How do I explain this to a tax payer? Will your product create technical debt?

Tip: Cities have endless strategy documents. These documents often guide funding and government priorities. Find someone who already needs a win, has a budget and give them a solution.

Avoid calling everyone and their mother.

You’ve spent time culling through LinkedIn, scrubbed your contacts or looked us up in an online directory. You’ve narrowed your list to about five people in Information Technology, Communications and the Mayor’s Office. We know you’re calling all of us. And we hate that you’re wasting our time. I once spent 10+ hours with the same vendor over the course of three phone calls and too many meetings called by various members of our organization.

Tip: If a bureaucrat isn’t interested, ask why. Learn from it and move on — seriously.

Don’t follow me or anyone else into an elevator. Especially after hours.

Yes. This has happened. And more than once. You get extra creepy points for following me into an elevator after 6pm; especially if I don’t know you. But somehow, you have internet stalked me and/or used your special facial recognition software to detect me in my place of work. You’re probably a man on a mission. And I’m a petite woman trapped in an elevator with a stranger. It’s really not okay.

Tip: Just don’t be creepy. Call me when the sun is bright and people are around.

Follow these tips and we’ll have delightful conversation.

Look forward to meeting you soon.

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