#LocalGovSolutions: New Technologies Do Not Have to be Risky Business

Posted on September 16, 2015

In a continuing series as part of the ELGL & UTA Local Government Challenge, Alan Mond, CEO and Co-Founder of MuniRent, writes about technology solutions for local government. Congrats to MuniRent for recently finishing second in the 2015 Accela Civic App Challenge.

6 Strategies for Minimizing Risk While Exploring New Technologies

By Alan Mond – LinkedIn and Twitter
No two government agencies are alike. At MuniRent, we have the privilege of partnering with government agencies of diverse sizes, cultures, and geographic regions. The one thing they all have in common is a low tolerance for failure. Taxpayers are very vocal when government gets something wrong (remember healthcare.gov?), but when a complex process involving many agencies works smoothly (think Inter-Library Loans), it seems people hardly notice, right?  Bob Bruner, a former City Manager once told me, “I take low voter turnout as a compliment. You must be doing a good job if people aren’t too excited about local elections.”
While implementing new technology with our government partners, we researched several strategies to help them mitigate risk. Bottom line is: reduce risk by making many small decisions, rather than a single, big, expensive one. Here are the best 6 strategies we found:
Small Batches
Borrowing from the wise words of Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Startup, “Working in small batches ensures that [an agency] can minimize the expenditure of time, money, and effort that ultimately turns out to have been wasted.”  Whatever solution you want to deploy across the entire agency should work for a small group first.  Starting a small pilot within the agency aligns perfectly with this strategy.  Once it is well proven, it will be much easier to sell internally because you will already have a success story. This strategy also uncovers potential pitfalls that can more easily be remedied when dealing with small volumes than with an entire agency.
Find Early Adopters
262a50fb41d49ee8e6d8da93898fae9fThis precious resource is often overlooked.  Within every organization there are always a handful of progressive, open-minded individuals.  They are the sort of people who can’t stand inefficiency, and try to solve problems independently.  When their energy and enthusiasm are not appropriately utilized, they can become burnt out.  Thus, harnessing their energy and enthusiasm as early adopters and beta testers seems like a win-win situation for both manager and employee.   Early adopters can help sell an idea internally, as they communicate the benefits of the new solution with excitement to the rest of the team in a way that leadership cannot.  
Hack your own solution
There are a lot of great startups out there have the potential to make our lives easier, but sometimes hacking your own solution to a problem is the fastest way to test it.   For example, instead of waiting for a web developer to build a dedicated complaints website, you can DIY by using the free Google Forms to compile data on your taxpayers’ concerns about parking, snow removal, and other pressing issues.  There are hundreds of free or low cost tools in the startup ecosystem. You don’t need to be a programmer to take advantage of them. Hacking your own solution in the beginning will significantly streamline the process of building a custom technical solution.
Validate Hypothesis
Let’s say that your city would like to offer online permits for garage sales. You hypothesize that more than 3000 people have garage sales each year, and it is costing the city valuable resources having to deal with paper permits. Using small batches and hacking your solution, you can come up with an online Google Form where people can fill out the necessary information for you to collect. Since it is not a full implementation, they still have to come in for payment. Not ideal, but better than a paper form. The goal is to validate or invalidate the hypothesis. Are people really looking for an online permit for garage sales? Are there that many cases clogging up the counter at the permit center? Make sure the technology specifically addresses a clear problem and your hypothesis is validated.
Pilot Programs
When you are finally done with validation and testing, it’s time to bring in a partner with expertise in the area. It is always best to ask the company you are partnering with to start off with a pilot rather than go straight to an open bid procurement. A pilot program generally involves fewer people, it has a fixed duration of time (6 or 12 months) and it helps understand if the solution really targets the pain point you are experiencing. Just make sure to set clear goals at the beginning of the pilot and to collect data during the pilot. This way you’ll have strong arguments when it’s the time to justify the procurement for the full program.
Find Good Partners
imagesI resent the word “vendor.” It automatically creates an adversarial ‘Us vs Them’ dynamic between government agencies and private sector companies.  A vendor simply tries to sell as many widgets to as many entities as possible.  This leads the buyer to be reduced to a target lead for a sale, and the vendor to be viewed with the same mistrust reserved for snake oil salesmen.  I prefer the term “partners.” Partners have a vested interest in the success of your project.  The ideal partner has a good understanding of what your organization is trying to achieve, and is not only willing, but passionate about realizing those goals.  Startups are among the best partners when trying to implement new technology.  A startup’s survival is strongly correlated to your project’s success. Their size makes them scrappy and adaptable, and their hunger makes them eager to innovate. Wonder where to find them? Here is a list of the 40 tech startups helping government today.
Thanks to Kimberly Yang and Julien Vanier (@monkbroc) for reading drafts of this.

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