In a network-exclusive Code for America mentor event, former White House CTO Aneesh Chopra, author of “Lean Startup” Eric Ries and O’Reilly Media’s Tim O’Reilly sat down for a conversation on open government.
Even in his introduction, Chopra identified what he called “four levers to pull” for those in civic hackers and innovators in attendance. To a room full of Code for America Fellows, startups, staff, and mentors he offered the following:
1. Open up Data: Chopra talked about identifying opportunities to open datasets being in the best interest of all those involved;
2. Opportunities for Standards: He saw rapidly prototyping a data standard as a legacy that would not only encourage third party developers but would provide lasting impact to a city;
3. Issuing a Challenge: He saw the opportunity in building capacity through hackathons, competitions, and data challenges; and finally,
4. Lean Evangelism: Says Chopra, “Any level of government can benefit from this toolset.”
With the forefather of the “lean movement” Ries sitting next to him, Chopra praised lean methodologies as a sustainable model for creating innovation in government. In adding to the conversation, Ries offered, “When you have a problem — put a startup on it. They’re cheap and they fail quickly all the time. It’s just a matter of education. ”
Ries and Chopra talked about the original healthcare.gov site released in 2010 as a model where a government agency worked like a successful startup.
THE SUCCESS OF THE ORIGINAL HEALTHCARE.GOV
Despite the debacle of the current healthcare.gov release, Chopra offered a fascinating story about the original success of healthcare.gov. In 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was written into law, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was mandated to create a public-facing website within 90 days of the law’s enactment. At the time the site was owned by the Public Affairs group and was slated to be a brochure-style site. Nevertheless, both Chopra and current U.S. CTO Todd Park realized that in order to serve citizens, the site needed to be modeled as an app rather than as a brochure. It was then that a series of cross-functional working teams were built, scope was set to a smaller MVP product, and the decision was made to release without pricing. Ninety days after the release, an API was offered to third party developers and to this day, that same data powers Healthfinder.gov.
Another successful government project that both Ries and Chopra identified was the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) redesign of the mortgage disclosure form. Explained Chopra, Know Before You Owe was released and received 17,000 visitors — all of whom offered their online feedback about mortgage disclosure forms. In that period of time, the CFPB amended the forms no fewer than seven times and used their insights from public release to continue to optimize the process.
Says Ries, “It’s not about creating a huge RFP process. It’s about incremental releases over time that challenge our assumptions and help us learn what we need to know.”
When asked what advice Chopra, Ries, and O’Reilly had for civic hackers and fellows, they each offered their insight:
Said Chopra, “Solve the problem that the person you report to was put on this earth to solve. Everybody has their thing and they’ll love you if you solve that for them.”
Offered Ries, “Continue to ask yourself, ‘What did you learn and what do you know?’.”
And from O’Reilly, “It’s important to remember that the real people you report to are the citizens and not just those within government. When you meet the needs of the citizens and your partners and allies will be happy.”
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