Tag Archives: public sector

Zen and the art of website procurement: why bureaucrats should get their hands dirty with technology

In the past few years I worked for several public sector agencies. Much of my work consists of thinking up and delivering projects that happen mostly through Internet channels. This is a good time to take a step back and muse on what I learned. As always, the most valuable lessons come from mistakes made – so it’s a good thing I made a lot of them.

  • Software-as-service is a bad idea, though there are exceptions. My team and I made this mistake with Kublai, as we decided to deploy our platform on Ning. That allowed us to be up and running in half an hour, no small advantage; but we paid for it by sequestering our own database, procured and paid for by the Italian government, and handing it over to an American private company forever. A year later, Ning changed its CEO and business model: it moved its platform from the open source to the full copyright domain, disabled APIs and blocked migration tools. Just to do a network analysis, Ruggero Rossi had to write a web crawler – a bit like picking the lock to the door of our own home. It could have been worse: we were using a free service (that was before Ning rolled out pricing plans). If the company had simply shut down business, formatted the hard drives and walked away we could not have stopped them, since we were not in any contractual agreement. They would not even answer our emails. I am never going to even consider again rolling out a public sector project in which my agency does not have root access to the server hosting the database.

  • Using proprietary software is not a good idea either, again with some exceptions. It is expensive and it amounts to a open-ended commitment to your supplier. If a large software house develops custom software for you and then sells you the license, no one, except that same supplier, is ever going to be able to tweak that code. You risk finding yourself disempowered and stuck in a situation in which changing the color of the background or the font is expensive (as in billable hours expensive) and involves a lot of administrative friction. Furthermore, it is politically questionable: proprietary software is not reusable for free by other administrations, and that is not good – especially in a time of budget cuts and of (justified) skepticism vis-a-vis the effectiveness of administrations in spending taxpayer money.

  • That leaves free/open source software. I have been using WordPress in public sector projects since 2007; for the Edgeryders platform, more or less finished as of this week, my team ventured into Drupal. Working with open source software can be hard and frustrating. Features that are supposed to work simply installing a module or a plug-in turn out to have horrible bugs in practice; everything takes longer that you think; most of the work is not developing, but debugging. Meanwhile, the rest of the projects activities are stalled. It feels horrible. I think experience can mitigate the problem, but never really solve it. Free software is by definition organic and gritty: it works by hacks and duct tape as well as by elegant, rational solutions.

Despite all the problems, my experience of Drupal procurement is going to be positive in the end, as with WordPress before. The reason is this: these platforms allow, and even require, a hybrid figure of “power admin” to emerge, somebody who is less skilled than a developer but more so than a normal user. This happens because the admin interfaces of WordPress and Drupal are intuitive and very powerful; Drupal, especially, allows fine-grained control over your website. You can query the database, format the return of the query and send it to a page, a block or even an email message; you can tell the website to execute instructions of the kind IF [condition] THEN [action], not quite programming but on the border. Furthermore – and here I am thinking about my standing love affair with WordPress – when the admin interface is not enough, it is easy to find online resources and tutorials to get your hands into non-core parts of the code. I am technically incompetent, but still I have been able to teach myself to tweak the CSS in a blog’s style sheet, and even the PHP code for very simple tasks, like assigning different headers to different page or inserting a line of Javascript. That required a small-ish investment, to which the proliferation of “For Dummies” books in my library is testimony. This gives you an incredibly important freedom: that of developing in a quick-and-dirty fashion, launching, and then just keep tweaking as your project evolves. Trust me, you will feel the need from day one.

Here’s the trick: the hackerish power admin role is perfect for a public servant that needs to procure software. Getting to know the architecture of these platforms well and to take full advantage of their scope for customization does not make you developer, but it does mean being able to have a constructive conversation with your developers, get real on what can and can’t be done, how long it takes and how much it costs. Furthermore, a power admin can rethink her goals in terms of the software, and so come up with highly sophisticated terms of service for the procurement effort. For example, on Edgeryders we need to constantly reinvolve users in the conversation: this is done through email notifications and the recent activity feed. In Drupal, these functionalities are carried out by certain non-core modules. If the public servant knows this, she can procure not “a website that feels buzzing”, but “a website in which the activity stream module logs activities that are not logged out-of-the-box”, that is much clearer

When I got into motorcycle riding, I read the obligatory Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The lesson of that book is the following: the act of driving a motorbike is not really separable from that of doing its maintenance. “Romantic” bikers, who do not enjoy getting their hands dirty, don’t accept this, and delegate to professional mechanics even the simplest maintenance operation. But they pay the price of disempowerment, when their machines stop by the roadside and won’t get started again, and they don’t have a clue what’s wrong and how to fix it. This system failure can be disastrous in public policy: in the projects I manage technology typically accounts for less than 10% of the budget, yet if the technology is not there the entire project grinds to a halt.

Summing up, high quality procurement is impossible until you know what you are buying. In my experience the free/open source software community is up for sharing its knowledge; corporates producing proprietary software much less so. If, like me, you find yourself in the position of procuring a simple technological solution for the public sector, I recommend you turn to this community, arm yourself with patience and get your hands dirty with the technology the developers intend to use. Install and configure sandbox sites, add functionalities, tweak their look and feel. Spend time with hackers, show that you are eager to learn, an grill them with questions. Above all, don’t yield to the temptation of going “this is not my job, just make it work and send me the invoice”. It doesn’t work like that. This is very time consuming, but you will save that time, with interests, once you are in production. I know it’s not a perfect system, but it is still better than available alternatives. Truth be told, I think it would be really useful if somebody started a course of website procurement for public servants. Anybody out there is interested? I would certainly sign up.

Thanks Freddy Mascheretti, Ivan Vaghi, Paolo Mainardi and Claudio Beatrice for their patience and suggestions

Rewiring the economy to create new commons (long)

CriticalCity‘s victory at TechGarage was simply incredible. For one, it was overwhelming: the Milano-based crew won all three prizes (the first prize; the Wired award; and the users’ award. In fact, several VCs in the room improvised a pool of seed money for funding the startup! This sounds like an urban legend, but it is actually true: read Marco’s report – he was there). On top of that, their project is uncompromisingly not-for-profit (“we can’t and won’t monetize our player’s commitment to improve their cities”, they said), while TechGarage is a sancta sanctorum of for-profit enterprise. Somehow, this coalition of investors and business angels perceived CC as too good an idea not to make it happen.

There is a third reason why this story is incredible. CC does not come out from one of the many startup incubators built by the private sector, like Telecom Italia’s Working Capital. It comes from an environment for designing creative projects launched by the Italian public sector: Kublai, that I have the honour to have designed and to manage on behalf of the Ministry of economic development (presentation in English here). Even Gianluca, Dpixel president and TechGarage patron, got in touch with CC as a member of the Kublai Award jury.

1. Communities, if they are oriented in the right way, can single out the best ideas. Kublai aggregates creative projects, not lolcats videos: they are complex, and their assessment is multifaceted and multidimensional. CriticalCity’s project document is more than 30 pages long with attachments. The Kublaian community’s consensus on CC predicted with great energy and effectiveness what happened at TechGarage and elsewhere.

2. The public sector, traditionally more public goods-oriented than the private, finds itself in a strategic position. Artifacts like Wikipedia, Delicious, Flickr, Twitter have public good nature, i.e. they are resources for everybody to use. Now, public goods are great, but being public means there is no rivalry in their consumption, so they are by definition difficult to monetize. Consequently many great web 2.0 out there have business model problems. This is an opportunity for the public sector, whose very mission is to produce public goods. After the tragedy of the commons started in the 1700s, digital technologies allow today to invert the trend and start creating new commons.

It seems to me that an extraordinary opportunity opens up, such as I did not think I would see in my lifetime. We have democratized creativity, so that thinking up ambitious projects like CriticalCity and trying to make them happen has come to be a course of action available to normal young people like Augusto, Duccio, Chantal and the rest of them; we have web 2.0, a very powerful tool for aggregating ideas and people, and maybe now also for selecting the best among them; we are beginningto have a first generation of people that work on the side of public administrations, and understand the language, and can use the tools.

This first generation has today a new mission: rewire the economy to enable the production of new commons. Wikipedia and the rest may have shaky business models, but their value to the collective well-being and global competitiveness is undisputable. A government worth its salt must enable these things. And it can, because it wields very large resources that are normally used in very low productivity efforts: it has been remarked that all projects showcased at Public Services 2.0 put together had the same budget as a single project of the e-participation European programme. We need rewiring the economy to funnel attention and money towards people like the CriticalCity boys and girls, who dream (realistic) dreams of building resources for everyone to use, that for this very reason are difficult to monetize. It is difficult, but not impossible, and we need to do it. I’m going for it. I hope – and I believe – I will not walk this path alone.