Inspired By "Facebook Nation," Obama's Chief Disruptor Brings Startup Culture To The Gov't

The President's new Chief Innovation Officer, Steven VanRoekel, says America has become a "Facebook nation" that demands increased transparency and interactivity from the federal government. His solution is to make agencies function like lean startups.

"Driving innovation and innovative thought across the scope of government is super important," says federal Chief Innovation Officer Steven VanRoekel, who has been working under the radar since his appointment last August. After proving he could upend the federal bureaucracy with open government principles at the Federal Communications Commission, President Obama tapped him to bring a startup spirit to the entire federal bureaucracy.

Now, with the discretionary power that comes with the president's blessing, he wants to bring in fresh young faces to head up agency technology overhauls, deliver real-time, crowdsourced data from federal organizations, and make technology a systemic part of federal programs.

Bringing Startup Culture To The Bureaucracy

"I came from a very fast pace of innovation," says VanRoekel, a quality he wanted to instill in the FCC when he took over as managing director after nearly a decade at Microsoft.

During his tenure at the FCC, it launched one of the first pages specifically for developers to build apps on top of new data tools, ran a public contest for an app that monitored Internet service providers for disobeying new net neutrality laws, and redesigned the FCC website itself on open-source code (which won accolades from the tech community for its slick design).

The key to the FCC's nimbleness, he argues, was a leadership that expected the organization to run like a startup. When asked if this meant he was going to change the hiring strategy for the executive branch, he answered, simply, "Yes." Just last month, VanRoekel launched the Technology Fellows Program to bring in "young, just out-of-college" applicants to "create a pool of new talent to bring into government" starting 2012.

At the FCC, this idea manifested in bringing on young tech minds like Haley Van Dyck to help launch Apps.Gov, and scale it across the federal government—a strategy he'll continue with the fellowships program and cultural shifts toward hiring more tech-savvy leaders.

Live, Crowdsourced Data

"Data really becomes interesting when it's live," says VanRoekel. Prior to his arrival, the early experiments with open data initiatives were resoundingly criticized for failing to offer transparency tools, such as tracking Obama's stimulus package, with timely, accessible data relevant to U.S. citizens.

So, for instance, VanRoekel imagines providing updated information on broadband accessibility in homes and condos. "Probably, like you, I care more about broadband in the home than I care about root composition," he says, channeling his inner geek.

A previous iteration of this vision, the National Broadband Map, was mired in (perceived) excessive costs and unusable data. Frustrated by official procurement costs, VanRoekel's teams created a mobile speed-testing app to crowdsource a representative sample of broadband speeds around the U.S. After a "couple million people" ran the test, "for $10,000 or $15,000 to create, we got a richer set of data than we would have gotten through the normal mode of proscribed, culturally accessible government procedure," says VanRoekel. (VanRoekel modestly boasts that Steve Job called up to praise the app's ability to let him check Internet speed throughout the Bay Area).

The app partnership speaks to VanRoekel's loftier goal of breaking down what he sees as a false trade-off between government influence and business flexibility. "I view it as a partnership, making sure that we work on behalf of American businesses from a government perspective, and business works on behalf of the American government," he says.

Open Government and the "Facebook Nation"

"I think open government needs to be broadly a philosophy of the way we engineer," argues VanRoekel, who sees cutting budgets on open government projects as a missed opportunity to use technology to save costs on federal programs.

In addition to seeing pressure from cyber-security and budget cuts as aiding his technology overhauls, VanRoekel argues that the ubiquity of social media has created a "Facebook nation" that expects the same kinds of interactivity from commercial websites as it does from the federal government.

"It's creating tremendous pressure on government to step up on the innovation front," he says. "I view my job as really going out there and being kind of the ambassador of that new culture inside government."

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[Image: Flickr user kk+]

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4 Comments

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    This is very good to see. Too many of the government's functions are bound up in rules that cost more than they are worth. I'm glad to see that he is taking a fresh look at where the FCC and the government can do things differently in order to make a positive change, and to increase transparency and accountability. 

    David Kaiser, PhDExecutive Coach & CEO
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.co...

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    This is very good to see. Too many of the government's functions are bound up in rules that cost more than they are worth. I'm glad to see that he is taking a fresh look at where the FCC and the government can do things differently in order to make a positive change, and to increase transparency and accountability. 

    David Kaiser, PhDExecutive Coach & CEOwww.DarkMatterConsulting.co...

  • Ash Roughani

    I can't overstate the importance of creating more innovation in government.  But that can't simply be manifested in the use of technology.  At its core, we must change the culture of government so that there's less rules, less bureaucracy, and more accountability for results.  While this is an important step in the right direction, we believe that it's going to take a new political party to champion innovation in government and push back against special interest groups that will try to maintain the status quo.