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Cities, counties, and local government organizations have a timeless mission: to provide services, protect society and promote economic prosperity. Everywhere, public sector leaders and civil servants see unmet needs and changes they would like to make quickly. However, government organizations are not often viewed as agile.


Technology companies and business, on the other hand, have a reputation for agility, often disrupting established businesses with new business models. Think of Amazon, Netflix or Uber.


What hinders government agility? Government procurement processes aim to reduce potential fraud, waste, and abuse to hold government accountable to citizens. These same processes can slow down adoption of new innovations to improve citizens’ lives. Government employees may not have the skills to build new applications themselves. Or they may have the skills, but not the resources.


How can government agencies tap into the creativity of technology companies and harvest their agility for civic innovation? 




A hackathon is an event where a group of developers, data scientists, graphic designers, or others come together for a brief period, such as a weekend, to create solutions. In the public sector space, these are often organized around open data – specific data sets where a city, state, or county makes available to the hackers. Typically, hackers form teams and create a solution using information provided. Tech companies may provide tools for the hackers to use.


Hackathons do a great job of showing possible civic innovations. Developers create useful applications meeting social needs, such as a mobile app for benefits. Consider civic apps aimed at mobile devices. Mobile operating systems are updated often and the applications running on them need to be maintained. However, we find that such applications are often not maintained. Developers return to their university studies or day jobs and no one maintains the app. Code may not be well documented, so even the hard-working tech support office in local government may not be able to help.


Startup In Residence (STiR) Programs


On Friday, September 16th, I joined the Startup in Residence Demo Day in San Francisco, CA. ( ….. this inspired some excellent discussions about the program and how civic innovation is evolving in public sector.




In my view, Startup in Residence Programs take civic innovation one step further than hackathons. STIR programs are a potential way to spur regional economic development. New companies with diverse skill sets partnered with local government to address various maladies such as foster care, law enforcement, city finances, urban resilience, and preschool. Such programs exist in Amsterdam and the Hague in the Netherlands and in San Francisco, California today.



The STIR Demo Day in San Francisco culminated a 16-week collaboration between civic-minded startup companies and government agencies aims to improve city services with technology to lowers costs, enhance productivity, engage citizens and improve quality of life. 14 startups worked with government partners across 13 departments in San Francisco, Oakland, San Leandro and West Sacramento.


Startup companies build demos that may be turned into repeatable products. They seek investors to help them convert demos to scalable solutions and improve the companies’ long term viability so that other regional government organizations can benefit from the solutions. Government agencies and citizens can benefit from the innovation which addresses civic needs.  Sounds like a win-win!




Resources for further reading:

Bay Area Startup in Residence Program Showcases 14 Tools for Local Government

2016 Startup in Residence Program Comes to a Close as Participants Showcase Inventions

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