Creating Structural Change in Government

At the Code for All SummitZack Brisson from Reboot moderated a panel with Sheba Najmi (Code for Pakistan), Jakub Górnicki (Code for Poland), Alvaro Maz (Code for Australia), Kat Townsend (USAID) about how strong relationships can be built with public-sector institutions.

Building these relationships and developing trust with government partners is often the hardest part of our work. During the panel, Code for Pakistan, Australia and Poland shared learnings on how to build strong relationships with government partners and how to drive structural change within institutions.

The first question for the panel was directed at USAID’s Kat Townsend about what she’s learned from having seen the difficult process of government reforms play out and what she’s learned in terms of what really gets stuff done.

Townsend breaks the answer down into three parts: Policy Change, Cultural Change, and Infrastructure. Townsend recommends having small wins and prototypes that can provide your team examples you can replicate.

Townsend also says that everyone needs a one-pager – a single page that can summarize your case studies in such a way that they can be plugged in directly to speeches. Internally, make sure others can evangelize your message by giving them tools and products they can share with others.

Townsend also states that teams must get a policy in place, but cautions that people won’t pay attention to a policy alone. Civic innovators need to explain and determine what the barriers to the work are and understand why people don’t see the benefits and what motivates people within the org. In a lot of nonprofits and government agencies, people sign up because they want to help people. If you can appeal to the mission, people will jump on it right away.

With infrastructure, a lot of the open data projects require tech infrastructure – but reporting on progress has to be set up too.

The next question was about how to address the need for political cover. Sheba Najmi of Code for Pakistan talked about how the most traction they’ve gotten has been in Pakistan’s KP (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) province.

The KP province is consistently in the news for being a dangerous place to be because of the Taliban’s activities there. When a new government took charge in KP province, they had the political will to prove themselves. Code for Pakistan partnered with the new government and the World Bank to run a civic hackathon. Code for Pakistan was able to broker the relationship, and the World Bank added more legitimacy to the effort.

Code for Pakistan’s fellowship program was spun off from the hackathon where they partnered with the government IT board. Sheba says that was great because of the relationships that the IT board in KP province had with IT departments from other governments. Together, they created a six month fellowship (5 projects) in partnership with different departments. During the fellowship, they built a lot of trust by doing simple things like fixing printers and monitors. The team then used that trust to convince the government to hire an operational officer equivalent to a chief technology officer.

Sheba says that building a relationship with government is a gradual process and that organizations should partner with bigger organizations with existing relationships with government.

Jakub Górnicki from Code for Poland spoke about how their cities program started because one person in the City of Gdansk knew of Code for Poland (and that they weren’t crazy) and trusted them to do it. Code for Poland ran a pilot program (which was successful) and turned it from the trust phase to the build phase. After that, the team asked the mayor to help pitch Code for Poland’s program – helping Code for Poland grow. Jakub says that having mayor’s speaking on the city side is the place you want to be. You just have to not screw up.

Another aspect of Code for Poland’s work is to try and  get elected officials to embed openness into their campaigns. One of the goals is to to make openness a competitive political asset.

Jakub noted that one of the aspects about the projects in Gdańsk was they had to be open source. This was a challenge for Code for Poland because they had to explain the benefit of open source despite vendors claiming it ti be more expensive.

One question that Zach had for Code for Australia was how they defined ‘innovation’. Code for Australia’s Alvaro Maz described innovation as a good hack without the technical component. – doing something differently, and you find that you change things a little more, work through the issues, and make  progress that way. When Alvaro talks to people about innovation in government, he’s often speaking from a small steps perspective. He says, “If it’s something that we find that we can do differently, but it’s just doing something under the label of innovation, that’s just doing our work. I don’t think it’s really solving the problem.”

Sheba says that technology can either build or reduce trust – If done right, (where’s my bus, 311 service tracker) it builds trust. However, technology done badly – such as citizen reporting apps that don’t close the loop and alert the city to an issue – can reduce trust.

Zach also asked if – knowing the political resistance to releasing expenditure data – how would the process be different if they had started with that? Jakub states that they didn’t start with the capital because capital cities tend to be more political focused while smaller cities are more interested in governance. This led to focusing on the business case for open data.

Katie Townsend recommends starting with a problem – What are the tools? What are the resources? Who are the people? – and being very steady and methodical.

Code for Australia had one of their fellowship teams do a project where it was only research because the government didn’t have enough funding for an entire project. The team conducted their research through an entrepreneurial  focus within government and they wanted to study the longevity of that problem.

Katie Townsend also says that one of the things that they at USAID was state that because everyone is online and has their own social media profile, the organization can’t expect every message to go through 15 layers of approval because the internet simply moves too quickly.

Jakub ends the panel by saying that there are times where you can’t get the government on your side – in which case get the people on your side.

You can watch the whole panel here.