How The White House Is Leading The National Effort On Civic Innovation

Editor’s note: Maury Blackman is president and CEO of Accela, a provider of cloud-based civic engagement solutions for government.

Silicon Valley, Uncle Sam needs you! No, I’m not talking about just your checkbook. Many of us who work in tech and live in California are accustomed to calls from candidates and campaigns asking for money every couple of years. But this request is much different.

Members of a new White House effort, the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), have been making house calls, from Sand Hill Road to tech companies all over the Bay Area. Former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, Fuse Corps Founder Jennifer Anastasoff, USDS Administrator Mikey Dickerson and others who led efforts to resuscitate are on a recruiting trip for tech talent.

And big names are joining; the White House recently hired its first-ever chief data scientist, Dr. DJ Patil, who will work closely with the USDS. From a White House West setup in San Francisco, they are going around California trying to lure the best and brightest to join them. Even President Obama has gotten in on the act, personally pitching DJ and others. The agency’s mission is to transform “how the federal government works for the American people.” Now, that’s a big undertaking.

You can join for a week, a couple of months or the remainder of the administration. Hiring is surprisingly painless and nimble, something that the federal government is not known for. I’ve heard the pitch. It’s inspiring. Apparently, the idea for the USDS was born out of the ashes of the launch fiasco and the strike force of developers and tech wizards from the private sector that were assembled to clean up the mess. Late last year, it was decided that this group and approach should become a permanent fixture in our nation’s capital.

One of the first challenges for the USDS when it officially launched in August was to fix access to services for those who have bravely served our country. As a veteran, I know about the problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) firsthand. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart thankfully has taken the VA and the administration to task for the absurd backlog in scheduling doctor’s appointments for veterans. But in 2014 there were still about 400,000 overdue compensation claims left.

How could this be? The VA hasn’t changed its scheduling technology for almost 30 years. In a congressional hearing last summer, a VA under-secretary testified that the “scheduling system scheduled its first appointment in April of 1985. It has not changed in any appreciable manner since that date.”

The new USDS is now on the scene at the VA working to deliver customer-focused government services through smarter IT. It’s a concept that is long overdue.

Laboratories of civic innovation

USDS staffers recently went to Eventbrite in San Francisco looking for tech superstars to help modernize our federal government agencies using the strike-force approach. This got me thinking: Maybe civic-minded technologists would also like an option to do something locally.

We need local versions of the USDS, as well. I imagine there are plenty of governments that could use a little help from a Facebook, Twitter or Google engineer to bring the user experience with government into the 21st century. And I imagine some of those civic-minded technologists in California would rather have a drive to Sacramento than a cross-country flight to D.C.

There are many government agencies in California that are desperate for the tech help. The Golden State has been unable to address its incredible technology gaps on its own. It received an “F” for government spending transparency, and the legislature has not fared much better with a “D” from the Sunlight Foundation for the second consecutive year. New Secretary of State Alex Padilla and freshmen legislators have said they are gearing up to improve these rankings.

There are departments, such as the California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS), that are leading the march to a more modern, flexible approach to providing services.

This past summer, the CHHS launched an open data program to engage the tech community, and the early results are impressive. One highlight was a smart idea developed to inform residents about using WIC, a federally funded health and nutrition program for women, infants and children. The open data program at the CHHS made it possible to apply aggregated health data to create WICit, a web-based application developed by community members that helps families easily figure out grocery stores where WIC payments are accepted.

But there are much bigger government technology issues that a digital services agency in California could tackle. The always forward-leaning Governor Jerry Brown should take a page from Todd Park, the Silicon Valley-based adviser to the White House, and develop a version of the USDS for California. And other local governments should follow Washington’s lead and create their own digital services programs. It is something that every city, county and state government can and should do, and many already have taken a first step.

Baking innovation into government’s DNA

Cities across the nation have partnered with Code For America (CfA). Known as a “Peace Corps for geeks,” CfA works with mayors’ offices, department heads and agencies to tackle problems affecting local communities using technology. CfA’s yearlong fellowship program sends developers, designers and product managers into local governments to work on a variety of issues.

In Boston, a CfA fellow, Joel Mahoney, overhauled a confusing public school selection process. Now, as the founder of the civic startup OpenCounter, Joel is back working with Boston, making it easier for small businesses to open their doors by simplifying the process for applying for permits and business licenses.

In addition to education and economic development issues, CfA fellows in Pittsburgh have been able to open procurement procedures so that small businesses can more effectively compete for local government contracts.

But what if cities, counties and states took a cue from the federal government and baked innovation into their governments’ DNA? What if local governments asked their tech talent to give a day or two or a couple of weeks a year to work with local agencies and departments to improve the communities where they live and work?

We’ve seen the initial success that the USDS has had at the federal level. Now it’s time to take the USDS local.