The Civic/Gov Tech Thesis
A few months ago, I began collaborating with Aaron Cohen, a serial entrepreneur and one of my co-founders at GovLab. We’ve been focused on a central question: how do we build scalable technology solutions that help local communities and government?
The problem is clear enough: citizens the world over are losing faith in government, while the public sector struggles to deliver goods and services amidst shrinking deficits, aging infrastructure, and (literally) mountains of paper. And as the recent debacle over Healthcare.gov made clear, broken and outdated government technology is both a cause and consequence of this problem.
Plenty has been written about the serious shortcomings of legacy government IT, so I’ll spare that dead horse. But when public infrastructure suffers this badly, there are inevitably opportunities to innovate and improve.
While large old-line industries like finance, healthcare, and education have begun to face the disruptive power of technology in recent years, government has remained largely untouched. If you believe Marc Andreessen’s famous claim that “software is eating the world,” then it’s only a matter of time before the $142 billion government vertical — the largest sector of the economy — should get devoured.
Despite this massive opportunity, most tech startups have avoided tackling government workflow and legacy IT challenges directly. (You’d be hard-pressed to find even a handful of government-focused startups mentioned in TechCrunch in any given month). Conventional wisdom holds that government is simply too challenging a sector for an early stage venture to pursue. And there are certainly major headwinds including:
- customer development process is slow
- bureaucrats are often risk averse or not incentivized to seek efficiency
- sales cycle is long and relationship-driven
- procurement rules are complicated and onerous
- established players have deep pockets, vendor lock-in, and are fiercely competitive
- market is fragmented (100+ vendors, 19000 cities, wide range of needs)
These headwinds undermine a startup’s likelihood of success. For these reasons, most successful ventures in the burgeoning civic/gov tech sectorhave “jumped the fence” or created “end-runs” around existing government processes in order to deliver value directly to individuals and communities. These include civic crowdfunding ventures like Neighbor.ly, community organizing platforms like Causes, and collaborative consumption companies such as AirBnb and RelayRides.
We support such approaches, but we think there’s a massive — and largely untapped — opportunity in building apps and products that help government work better. As Zac Bookman at OpenGov and Joe Lonsdale at Formation 8put it:
Government represents one of the most challenging sectors in which to build a business. Yet the challenges represent opportunities for those bold enough to tackle them. Winning requires patience, deep pockets, and cutting-edge technology…. Conventional wisdom says that it’s too hard to build a business in government (or other major industries), and this has kept many from trying. Grand outcomes await for those top young companies bold enough to venture and win.
A handful of companies with this mindset are emerging from places like theCFA Accelerator, Tumml, and San Francisco’s EIR program. But they represent just the tip of the iceberg. We believe that building “business-to-government” and “citizen-to-government” solutions — especially at the local level — can create tremendous value for citizens and civil servants. Better technologies could save taxpayer dollars, help government workers do their jobs more effectively, engage the public in the democratic process, and improve individuals’ lives.
That’s why we’ve decided to launch MeWe.
MeWe: Our Vision
In June 1975, Muhammad Ali was asked to deliver a commencement address at Harvard University. As the story goes, Ali was nearing the end of his speech when someone in the audience exclaimed, “Give us a poem!” Everyone quieted down. Ali paused, then responded with two words:
MeWe takes inspiration from the spirit of individual and collective empowerment this phrase conveys.
At MeWe, we are building lightweight, easy-to-use tools that help citizens and cities work together more effectively. We are a team of entrepreneurs, engineers, and policy wonks passionate about improving how communities works — to make individuals’ lives better.
Our guiding principles include:
- Build tools that work. When government infrastructure breaks down,those who need it most fare the worst. We aim first and foremost to develop technologies that do what they’re supposed to.
- Do more with less. With growing financial pressures, government must be lean yet remain effective. Government IT is no exception. Embracing Pareto’s “80/20 Rule,” we build lightweight tools that provide key functionality at a fraction of the cost of legacy enterprise software.
- Design for users, with empathy. For many citizens, interactions with government are painful and frustrating (think: the local DMV), and in the worst cases, offend our basic sense of dignity. We believe government interfaces can be simple, beautiful and easy to use, making the experience enjoyable for citizens and civil servants.
- Start small, prove, then scale. Its hard for small companies to get government contracts, so rather than try to tackle the entire government behemoth all at once, we’ve decided to focus on towns and cities. We believe there’s huge potential in creating value for citizens and civil servants at the local level, and scaling from there.
- Build an ecosystem, not just an app. We’re inspired by friends at places like Code for America and New Urban Mechanics, who share our vision of “Gov 2.0” and are helping lead the way to government-as-platform. We’re excited to see companies like Mark43, CivicInsight, and SmartProcure gaining traction, and encouraged that investors like Formation 8, Thrive, Govtech Fund and Omidyar Network are active in this space. A civic tech ecosystem is emerging, and for us, a long-term goal is to help build that ecosystem.
What We’re Building: MeWe CoInspect
Building, housing, and food inspections are critical to public health and safety. Yet inspectors struggle to enforce legal codes due to limited resources and inefficient paper-and-pencil workflow.
Our product, “MeWe CoInspect,” helps public and private sector inspectors manage their workflow better. The CoInspect tool has 3 components: 1) a cloud-based administration application for managers; 2) a smart-device application for field inspectors; 3) and a smart-device client that allows any member of the community (including citizens and facility owners) to crowdsource input.
How it works: Inspection managers load target property data into the administration application (via CSV file import or API). Managers then assign a customized inspection checklist to each target. Field agents login to the mobile app. After selecting a property, the app routes the agent via integration with the Google Maps API. At each property, the smart-device app loads a checklist with detailed criteria for the inspector. Any individual with a smart-device can use our app to directly submit issues related to a given property.
We’re a small but fast-growing team based in Cambridge (at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society) and San Francisco.
Over the last few months, we’ve been engaging with dozens of city inspectors, public health officials, code compliance experts, and community leaders from Boston to Brownsville to better understand their existing workflow, pain points, and goals. In the process, we’re learning a ton about how cities work — and the challenges they face in enforcing public health and safety laws.
We’ll be blogging about our work in the weeks ahead. If you’re interested in what we’re doing, we’d love to connect and explore ways to collaborate. It’s MeWe, after all.