What many people don’t realize is that local governments are big enterprises that require good communication and coordination systems to work efficiently. A lot of the problems that cities face right now can be solved with the proper use of government technology and with the help of someone who has both the technical expertise and bureaucratic clout to make things happen.  With his stellar performance as former CDO for the City of Los Angeles and subsequently as interim CIO for Sacramento, Abhi Nemani is an absolute thought leader when it comes to all things GovTech. With his new GovTech consultancy firm, EthosLabs, Abhi continues to accelerate good governance in dozens of cities by helping them harness the power of digital technology. In this conversation with Abhijit Verakar, he shares his insights on the systematic changes that local governments need to do to catch up in digital innovation and transformation.

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Harnessing Government Technology To Make a Big Impact with Abhi Nemani

My guest is Abhi Nemani. He is the Founder of EthosLabs. Abhi has got an interesting background. He has worked for Google. He’s worked for the City of Los Angeles and Sacramento. He’s done a lot in GovTech. Abhi, welcome to the show.

Thanks, Abhijit. I appreciate it. I’m glad to be here.

I got introduced to Abhi by another guest that’s been on the show, Rick Cole. He had every good thing to say about you. I’m thrilled that we got to know each other. Tell me how did you become a prominent name in everything GovTech and what’s your story?

I got to start right out of college. My plan was to go work full-time in the tech industry at Google. My history when I was young and in college and high school was working at political institutions like Think Tank or campaigns. This is in the early 2010s. What I realized in those situations was simple technology can be applied and have an outsized impact by building a better website, or setting up a way for people to talk to each other remotely. Things like that had a big role to play.

There weren’t as many people doing that work in civic institutions either on the political side or within the government. I got hooked to that ability to apply simple solutions to have a big impact. When I was graduating from college, I saw this tweet called Code for America. It was a way that helped governments use technology to work better. I was like, “That sounds exactly what I care about.” One thing led to another and I ended up turning down my Google jobs staying at Code for America, this new nonprofit, for four years.

I was seeing around the early 2010s, this explosion of energy around government technology, civic innovation, and smart cities. There was this excitement and energy around it, which we at Code for America are lucky to be at the beginning of that and see it grow. You ask how I become prominent in this field but I don’t know if I am prominent. What I am is well connected because many people wanted to work in this and they didn’t know where to go.

They didn’t know who to talk to. They would call us that our name’s Code for America, so clearly we would know how to code for America. What ended up happening through that process was a lot of understanding of the needs and challenges, the opportunities and the gaps and a lot of interesting pilot projects showcased examples. What we’ve seen from them and what my career has been since then is going deeper into more substantive areas.

When I was in LA, we worked on data science and data analysis to improve its performance management program. That’s when I worked with Rick Cole, who made the introduction between us. In Sacramento, we built a deeper innovation program with a $10 million innovation fund to drive their smart cities program. Since then, I’ve been working with GovTech startups. These are new Software as a Service company.

They’re trying to disrupt the existing GovTech ecosystem to a more commodity-based, more SaaS-based model. There’s an information asymmetry where there are folks on the government side who want something but don’t know how to talk about it, don’t know what’s out there and then there are solutions on the vendor side, but they don’t know how to talk to government or who to talk to or what their problems are. What needs to happen is to bring those people together and in your words, how to reimagine IT. When those connections happen, those are exciting.

What’s exciting about working in local government is that it gets you a visceral commitment to make an impact to the person in front of you. Click To Tweet

Let’s take the example of an ERP implementation. Before, if you buy something and you have an army of engineers in the city building basement coding for years, you sink a bunch of money and all of a sudden you had pre-made systems coming to you for a fraction of the cost. It’s even gotten better now. You have Software as a Service that changed the landscape. You consider yourself to be one of the torchbearers of the new era in GovTech. How did you go from working for Google to getting into something like Code for America? Was it the coolness factor or how did you get hooked onto government?

I often remind people that me and many people in my generation care for the government because they like the TV show, The West Wing. Two things brought me to this work. One, I’ve always been a profoundly deep believer in the notion of democracy. That things are better in general when people work together. At its core piece is what democracy says, “We will have a better working society if everyone’s at the table.” I don’t want to use the church qusote that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. It’s still is better than all the others. I always believed in that and it’s why I was always drawn to groups and clubs and all of those institutions because I believe that institutions matter.

The second thing is I place a sense of personal pride in the institutions I’m affiliated with. I want to be proud of my city. I want to be proud of my government in part for a selfish reason. It is what we do together. Also, because I know that because of my technical knowledge and my education, I have certain perspectives and things to give outside of just voting. I can do more than vote to be a good citizen. I can build stuff for my city. I can help my city, my state and my government.

Those are the two thoughts because I think democracy matters and democracy should work and feel like the rest of our lives, I figured working with technology and the public sector would be the most promising and useful thing I could do with my skills. When we started this back in 2010, to your point, this is the beginning of it. We knew that the way people were buying things didn’t make sense. Eighty-seven percent of federal IT projects fail. There’re litanies of examples from States. The local governments are pouring in tens of millions of dollars into projects that didn’t work. We knew that was all a problem.

We, at that point, didn’t have a way forward but what excited and I’ll say this is my third reason for going into it was the opportunity to figure it out. It was the opportunity to do something new and different where not that I wouldn’t have loved working at a larger tech company and helping with their projects and the massive scale they have. Scale is something people don’t think about when they think about GovTech because it is a niche market. It’s not like new iOS apps, like a new version of Angry Birds.

People don’t think, “This is going to touch millions and millions of people.” When you build a new ERP system for the City of New York, you’re serving not only ten million residents, but 100,000 employees, X number of businesses and Y number of other institutions. You do have a tremendous impact at scale, but it’s often unseen. What I tell people when they’re thinking about trying to go into government is, they have to be comfortable with that notion. If they’re okay with the idea that their work may not be as visible as other people’s, you can have a night and day like impact on the people’s lives.

The other thing too is that the government tends to be slower than the private sector for many reasons. Many times, it’s deliberate. Someone coming in from the outside, I’ll give you an example. We work in the town that we are headquartered and is a client of ours. The County is a client of ours. That layers on a lot of responsibility if you’re trying to do innovative things for the city you live in. It’s a small town. It’s South of Knoxville. Everyone knows everyone so you can’t screw up. It’s going to affect you in many ways.

I’ve had one of my employees who came from IBM. He has lots of experience in the private sector. Two months into the job with Avèro, he comes to me and says, “I don’t think I’m doing a good job here because I’ve got nothing done so far.” I said, “That’s not the point. We’re moving in my direction.” That’s what I think is a challenge for people coming into the government. It’s not always an obvious choice to go into the government. What I’ve seen is companies that do try to do business with the government are either going straight for the federal government jobs or they’re building a new app that would make something a little sexier than it is. There’s a whole other playing field in between that’s being missed in my opinion.

I think what you’re getting at is a good point, which is why local for me, at least. Why do I care about local government? More generally, why should people care about local government? You asked why I’m somewhat of a leader in this space. It’s because I spent all of my days telling people they should join the space. I’m a self-appointed evangelist for government technology.

RTI 19 | Local Government Technology

Local Government Technology: If you’re thinking about going into government, you have to be comfortable with the idea that your impact may not be as visible as that of others.


It’s the question of why local. For me, it’s that idea of building things that your neighbors will have and doing things that the people around you will get to have a part of. Here’s an example with one project that we did at Code for America was we wanted to do something with restaurant inspection scores, which I suppose it’s more relevant than ever now. We want it to be able to help citizens understand where they may get sick or where they may get food poisoning.

County’s public health departments go through and do assessments of all the restaurants and put up letter grades and sometimes number grades or like the ABC. You usually see it at the back of the restaurant near the kitchen or the restroom. What we did is we thought, “The government has this data, we’re doing this work, but people aren’t seeing the outcomes. How do we make it more visible?” We made a partnership with Yelp where the Yelp would ingest the open data from the government around restaurant inspection scores and show it right there on the app when you’re looking up a place to make a reservation.

Instead of waiting until you’ve sat down and gone to the restroom and see the score, you see it in the palm of your hands before you do. What was funny about that is I was living in San Francisco at the time when we did it. My girlfriend at the time we’re making reservations one day, a couple of weeks after we launched it, she was like, “Abhi, Yelp has restaurant inspection scores.” I was like, “Have you not listened to anything I’ve said in the last three months?”

Are they still doing that?

Yes, they still do. It’s called Live. It’s an open data standard. It’s a common way to publish data as jurisdiction to jurisdiction as long as cities publish it in that format, Yelp will ingest it like Google Maps ingest transit information through GTFS, that open data standard. Having worked in local government, in a mayor’s office, or multiple mayor’s offices at a fairly senior level, it’s humbling to do that work because you may get excited about doing some interesting big data project or some interesting smart sensor project, which is all great and good. I think those matters.

We would have these hackathons or I would go to community events and community meetups and people would ask me fundamental questions about the city like, “What are you guys doing to improve education? What are you guys doing to improve homelessness?” Because you’d be standing in front of that person, you can’t say nothing. You get this visceral commitment and visceral draw for change and for impact because of that person’s right in front of you. That’s what’s exciting about the local government. You’re not just sitting in an office building a thousand miles away from your user. You’re living right across the street from them.

You are missing that role in a lot of governments. I don’t know what your experience has been, but anywhere that I go and I’ve worked with close to 50 local governments in my career. There is either a CIO that’s been there for 30-plus years, who are keeping up with the mainframes or there isn’t anyone that’s been our source and they’re keeping the lights on. When you say CIO, people have a certain perception of what that should be as well as when you say CTO. What you need is a communicator and a problem and the tools can be found.

The first thing your other guest, Rick, and I bonded around was this idea of the missing piece within cities is a CMO, a Chief Marketing Officer role. There’s usually a public information officer or the mayor or the council people who have their spokespeople, but marketing as a holistic function which to your point is usually driven by user demand and user interests. It requires talking to people and understanding your needs. There isn’t someone holistically thinking about that from your city perspective. Overall, I’m sure you and Rick talk about how the pieces all fit together is a hard problem.

It’s why I have a deep respect for people like Rick or seasoned professionals who understand the management of government. That’s one thing that often goes overlooked is like, “Governments are a large enterprise.” In the City of Los Angeles, we have 40,000 employees and 46 different departments, so how do we coordinate with them? A clear example of that is people were complaining that the Department of Public Works that fix the streets, for instance, would go in and tear up a street to fix it in one week. The next week, the Department of Transportation would be there to put in bike lanes or something.

A city’s communications system needs to be organized and led in part by technology. Click To Tweet

Then the next week, water and power would be there to fix the pipes. Instead of these guys all doing that work at the same time, which they could, it happens week-after-week and then keeps disrupting the lives of citizens. If there is a way for those people to communicate with each other and say like, “We’re going to tear up this part on September 20th. You also are planning in that area.”

If they organized around that, it would not only streamline their lives and cut costs, but it would make lives for the residents in that area a lot better. What we did in LA is we built a simple map and appointment system where departments that were planning on doing road construction would get to see what other people are planning before they submit their plans so they could organize. Another example is a simple technology that is having a role people connect with each other, but it required someone like me coming in who is not attached to one department.

I’m attached overall to the mayor’s office. My job is to think more holistically and someone to your point of being able to solve problems who has a point of view or has some experience with deploying interventions. Sometimes it’s not tech, sometimes it’s something else like a policy. That does require either the creation of a new position, CMO. I know Rick has talked a lot about COO and some other people have talked about that as well.

That communications function from a city needs to be organized and led in part by technology. In a lot of places, the CMO report reports into the CIO or the other way around on the enterprise. You sometimes see that because information technology is critical to marketing these days that those functions are bound together. That’s an important model to keep in mind. To your point about people have these entrenched ideas of what a CIO or CTO is, in my experience, I do a lot of this work when a new mayor is elected for instance and he or she wants to drive innovation throughout their government.

There are a lot of talks now. There are a lot of buzzwords like smart cities. I’ve used these words myself while we’re talking. There’s a lot of big data, predictive analytics, etc. These buzzwords that people do hear in the news, I think there was an HBS article a couple of years back that a data scientist is the sexiest job title in the world. People are now wanting to hire data scientists, which is great. What people lack from my experience at a senior level when coming into this world is a compass, a way to navigate the world, a way to think about the ways to approach it.

What I’ve done, and I’m happy to share it with you and all of your audience, is I put together a simple overview deck of how to rethink your org chart and your organization. It goes over examples of what other cities have done like with data scientists, for instance. If you want to structure a modern IT organization using those three key pillars, CIO, CTO and CDO, what would that look like? I’ve done that for 5 or 6 cities. Almost every time that meeting ends shortly afterward then I hear that someone’s job titles changed, they’ve hired someone new or etc. A big piece of it is one mentality shifts on the leadership perspective and then two, either bringing on, bringing in or leveling up existing talent so they have the freedom to go and have those conversations and figure out what’s going on.

Is that one role with three different facets or are those three completely different roles the CIO, CTO and CDO?

Let me ask you that question first. What do you think?

I feel like it’s three functions of the same. You’re trying to get to the same outcome with the right infrastructure, with the right processes, and with the right approach to data. You can then have people that specialize in those things, doing the more data-driven, not the more detailed level work. In my head, it could be one person overseeing all of this. What do you think?

Local Government Technology: The CIO, CTO and CDO roles should be rolled up into one person or entity where they’re all connected to IT.


I don’t disagree with that notion in any way. You’re right that the functions are similar. The infrastructure you need is common as well. The CDO’s data is going to come from the CIO’s technology systems. The CTO’s thinking around the future of 5G is going to depend on connectivity and public works infrastructure across the city. These things do connect and are interrelated. This is one place where I’ll admit I was wrong to start.

My initial thinking is that all three should be distinct roles. There should be a CIO who’s in charge of the IT department that’s a general manager function. There is then the CTO who reports to the mayor as a technology advisor and emergent technology strategist. A CDO who also reports to the mayor instead of a thought leader type of role, this is more of an operator who does performance management and data science.

They can get in the weeds and do the math and figure out what are some interesting policy interventions. Candidly, part of the reason for that was a lot of cities have to your point, like IT managers, directors of IT who’ve been in that job for a long time. How do you augment that with new talent and perspectives? The structure of city governments varies widely from city to city. Some have a city manager, some don’t. Some have a strong mayor, some don’t. Some have a strong council, some don’t. What my initial hypothesis around this is you want to have individuals outside of the typical governmental structures, like managing the IT department, working with the senior executive, like the mayor or the city manager to drive change from a formalistic setting.

We set a new policy. A lot of cities do is they’ll hire a chief data officer reporting into the executive mayor, city manager, and then pass an open data policy that every department has to participate in. It says every day you publish should be open unless it’s private or sensitive or security risk. On paper, it would seem to work. You’ve got an executive saying, “You all have to do this.” You’ve got an executive support staff or leader in charge of managing it.

That doesn’t work well at all and I can speak from personal experience there because that’s how my role was set up in LA. The problem is if you’re not connected to the existing institution and the channels in which then additional executive works, you miss a lot of important things, primarily funding. Those departments have line-item budgets that they go through approval for every year were building out a mayor’s office of data might work in New York or Chicago where you can hire a lot of people in the mayor’s office.

In a lot of places, the mayor’s office doesn’t have that budget or that reach. You won’t be able to hire data scientists or project managers to help you to pull in all that open data and publish it. My thinking is to your point, they all should be rolled up into one person or thing where they’re all connected to IT. You’ve seen that shift in institutions and in cities in particular over the past years is CDOs for instance or CTOs who are outside of the chain of command and inside city hall got moved into those positions. The best example of this is Boston where the city elevates the CIO to a commissioner level or cabinet-level which they often aren’t.

Boston had an independent innovation shop called New Urban Mechanics. They have CIO and CDO. They are all doing good interesting things. They recruited a top-notch CIO named Jascha Franklin-Hodge. They brought in someone new and under his direction because he had private sector experience in both digital services and data, that person can oversee the entire operation. To my first point, starting this long slow equate was that they all are connected. Someone’s thinking about how the new permanent process they deployed can feed into open data, but then also feed into new economic development plans for startup growth that the CTO is going to be working on with the economic development team. That conductivity is like this virtuous cycle.

Here’s a question we get asked a lot. We’re not yet working with Boston but we tend to work with semi-rural, tier two kinds of cities that aren’t at the cutting-edge of critical thinking along with how an IT organization should be structured. They’re trying to come to the 21st century. We’ve done work about bringing someone else from the outside to look at it from a dispassionate perspective and tell you how the pieces fit together.

We’ve had clients that were squarely stuck in the 1970s with 400 mainframe green screens and paperladen and processes. They’re not thinking, “What am I going to do with all this data?” They’re still a good five years away from making those decisions. What would you say to them? How do you come from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s? I don’t promise to take them to 2020. What would your strategy be for radically changing some organization that’s decades behind?

Once you get the ball rolling on digital transformation, it's going to be hard to stop. The problem is you have to get it started. Click To Tweet

I both have experience with this, but also have maybe a contrarian point of view because I know a lot of people in that setting would say, “Let’s put together a strategy like a 5 or 10-year roadmap.” That’s what I did when I first started in one of my city government roles, which were interesting for me. It took a lot of time, did a lot of conversations with people to put together a data roadmap for the city. That took 4 or 5 months to get that done effectively and produce it into a document that could be shared publicly.

That document sat on the shelf because what ended up happening is as I got more entrenched in the city government. I got more connected. Things would emerge that needed attending to. You shifted focus back to the emergent problems or the upcoming problems. It is hard to stick to one of those plans, but in hindsight, I wouldn’t have approached it like that. If I could go back and do it all over again. What I would start by doing is collecting a bunch of quick wins.

My opinion on this is colored by the former chief legal officer for LA who, when we were putting together a tech strategy for the city, put together a similar long document with each department laying out their goals, etc. This gentleman came up to me after that pitch he’s like, “What you should have done is say, ‘Here are the ten things that people do in person right now that they don’t like doing in person. We’re going to make these ten things into digital services. We’re going to make it so you can do them online.’”

Lay out the top ten things that should be digital and say, “In the next 1, 2, 3 years, we’re going to knock out each and every one of them. It’s not a truly unique strategy. It’s what the government digital service in the UK did is they went through service by service and made those digital. Their former head to GDS has this nice raise. He says, “Our strategy is delivery.” Instead of spending time writing these documents like building stuff that’s great and embodies the value and the principles that you think people should be using when they approach technology open, interoperable, user-friendly and human-centric, etc.

It embodies those then that becomes the new normal then everything you do from there, it’s shaped by those examples. I grew up in a small village of 10,000 people. I spent all the time in St. Louis, Missouri, which is a tier two city and also in Chicago and New York and some other bigger tier-one cities. This is something people don’t talk about enough is how do we start spreading innovation down from the big cities to the smaller ones because even what I described, which is like picking the top ten services and reinvent them.

That requires A) Somebody who understands SaaS, lean, open agile, then B) That person has the budget to do something about it. C) That person has the executive clearance to do something about it. Getting all three of those pieces in a place is not easy. I want to hammer in on the first piece, which is getting someone hired into that role who wants it. In my hometown, Centralia, I’m sure there are ten people I could think of that would do that job and do it well and in St. Louis, I could think of 1,000, but do those people know that job’s available? Does the government know they should be hiring for that job? Do they even know how to hire for that job? Looping it back to marketing doesn’t even know how to recruit people for those jobs.

As a former founder or cofounder, I know that a CEO’s primary task is twofold, which is revenue and hiring. If you focus on that, you’re golden nuts. That’s the advice I have always gotten from former investors, etc. The problem is the mayor doesn’t spend half of his time or her time recruiting instead recruiting gets handed off to personnel or HR. We’re not going to the interesting tech meetups to recruit people. We’re posting it on LinkedIn and going back to the same types of folks that we used to get. There needs to be a cultural shift that working for the government at any size matters then there need to be more infrastructures in place to both on-ramp governments into that way of thinking and on-ramp people who might take those jobs into that way of thinking and get them excited about it. There needs to be that matchmaking that needs to happen at scale.

This will segue nicely into what you’re doing these days. There’s an education element to it. As you said, a new mayor comes in, brings in a brand-new cabinet, fires all the existing department heads you then suddenly find that they don’t have the questions to ask the IT person. What is the mayor going to ask or a city manager going to ask the guy or girl that’s been there for 30 years is, “Are we secured? Are we doing the right thing as far as the future is concerned?”

These people were politicians and businessmen in a completely different area. They don’t have the questions to ask. There’s a knowledge gap. The other side is a traditional IT director. You are picturing somebody that I’m talking about that has been there for 30 years, doesn’t have the ability to talk to executives or answer questions. Is that the problem you’re trying to solve with what’s your latest endeavor? I’ll let you go into what you’re up to now.

Local Government Technology: Notions like GovTech innovation and smart cities are easy to throw around as phrases, but it’s hard to really get your head around them.


What I’m working on now is this idea of a Civic Innovation Academy, jokingly called the Khan Academy for GovTech or the other name of users like Quantico for GovTech. What I’ve learned over these years in this field is that once you get the ball rolling on innovation or digital transformation, it’s hard to stop and that’s good. The problem is you have to get it started. At Code for America, my first organization, we did that by sending fellows into cities.

Some people do that by hiring someone new, some people do it in different ways, but in general, if you’re a city government from a small city, that’s like, “I want to build out our digital services program or our open data program.” It’s hard for them to say like, “What do I do there?” To your point, “What are the questions I ask?” I’ve flirted being a lawyer for a while and there’s a general rule of law that if you don’t ask your witness any questions you then don’t know the answers to.

I don’t think that’s necessarily the truth for this case. If you don’t know what questions to ask and have some semblance to how to approach the problem that’s been identified, it’s going to be challenging to move the needle. You can have the best of intentions, but if you don’t have the perspective of the experience and a little bit of the insight into, “There’s a way we can approach this problem.” It’s going to be hard to move anywhere.

You end up with lots of brainstorming conversations and no forward movement. To me, what needs to happen is both an educational component of, “Here’s what’s possible.” That was our tagline at Code for America for the first couple of years. I use it as my personal tagline is like, “Let’s show what’s possible.” Set the bar high then ideally people will then want to follow that. The way we did that at CFA was we built these flagship applications in LA.

When I was CTO, I built the mayor a modern, attractive dashboard that was mobile responsive, etc. After I worked with the staff and the mayor to build that initial thing, two fascinating things happened. One, the department wanted its own versions. General managers would reach out to me and say, “I want the same dashboard the mayor uses for city overall metrics, but just for my department.” If you’re in that role ever in any innovation role in an enterprise, people coming to you is always better than you going to people.

That was exciting and the other thing that happened was other cities reached out saying, “Can we redeploy this?” They want it to be able to use a code that they could because it was all open source and they could read a book. It was built on Google docs of all things so it’s super simple. The way I’ve been thinking about this problem is, “How do we merge those two things?” A bit of education and training tied to actual outcomes.

That’s where my head is and because of the interest around those two and my experiences so far, I’m moving in this direction of building out a full eLearning platform called the Civic Innovation Academy. That does precisely that. New York and Mike Flowers CAO, CDO did an interesting project there where they used a lot of data, not just about the building but around buildings to figure out which buildings would be most likely to fires then use that information to prioritize a list of which buildings go after to make sure they were up to code and they had smoke alarms.

The math was interesting and complicated, but not terribly difficult. The data they use was common data that any city could be reasonably found and use. The thinking is, “Let’s run a class on how to run the best, the most efficient code enforcement for buildings in the country.” That’s taught by say Mike Flowers or me or whoever else has experienced doing that. They learned the principles of, “One thing that you can do with data is optimization problems.”

What does that mean? What’s an optimization problem? They’ll learn how to think about problems in a different way then they’ll go through the process of doing that intervention for their own city. They end up leaving the program, not only with a certificate saying they’re now XYZ accredited from the Civic Innovation Academy, but that city will have a new data science model that they use for code enforcement inspections or they wanted to learn how to build a great operational dashboard for cities. They would take my class on running a performance management program and dashboarding and database. We’d go through those core concepts.

If you're in any innovation role in an enterprise, people coming to you is always better than you going to people. Click To Tweet

By the end of that class, they would have something tangible that they can show and then build off of. It’s a little bit of a hybrid approach to an eLearning system. A lot of them have you do projects with other people. In this case, the projects are the central point. I want to emphasize that for a specific reason. As we’ve been talking about, these general notions of GovTech innovation, smart cities are hard to grasp. They’re easier to throw out there as phrases, but it’s hard to get your hand all the way around it, which is why you’ve heard me give a dozen examples because what you need are examples to make that idea real.

I ask this question all the time. What does a smart city mean to you? It can mean different things to different people. Even the towns that are not sophisticated with technology in some ways are smart. They’ve got traffic signals that talk to each other. They’ve got SCADA systems and the utilities, but you’re right. Let me ask you about the courseware and the program you’re putting together is who is the target audience? Is it a department director coming to your class or is it a management-level employee? How are you seeing this?

What I’ve done based on my ecosystem survey is I’ve looked at what training programs and what’s out there right now if you’re a government employee wanting to get involved in civic tech. If you’re a prospective government employee and you want to learn more about what civic and GovTech is, where can you go for that. What I found are there’s a lot of programs, what I described at the fringes. If you think of a typical bell curve, you’ve got on one end of it as what I described as a new entrance.

It’s either a new hire or somebody who got promoted. This class of new people who are coming into space. I teach at the University of Chicago. I teach a civic technology course, their Master’s program that has about 40 students in a year. Harvard has a similar class and program. USC has one and Georgetown has one. These are emerging. These courses for recent graduates are Master’s students getting acquainted with civic tech. In a certain way, that portion, that fringe, that side of the bell curve is spoken for.

On the other side, you have the senior people inside governments like mayors, chief of staff, CTOs, CIOs, or CDOs. All of them have different conferences and educational things or networking things they can do. Mayors have these conferences with mayors. Chief of staff, Living Cities, run the training for them twice a year. CIOs and CDOs have a host of different events that bring them together and a host of training programs. What I am concerned about is the bulk of that curve which are people who aren’t senior and people who aren’t new or are new, but are established in that role. How do we get them thinking about technology differently?

To use the different tiers you were talking about, it’s more project program manager or senior policy advisor or senior policy analyst. Folks who don’t necessarily build technology, don’t build technology or don’t know how to build technology but either they’re the ones dealing with the problem day-to-day. They’re the program manager in economic development and seeing how painful it is to do the permitting process or they’re like an analyst in finance and they don’t know how to get the data or use the data that’s coming out and clean it up and do something with it to the reports that you create.

People who aren’t necessarily going to in this way code for America because that’s not what they’re doing. They’re not coding. People need to understand technology, so when they do go out and think about, “I need a new way to be permitting.” They’re thinking about, “Is this a SaaS solution? What is SaaS? Is it going to be delivered via Lean methodologies if we have to build it or will we have to do waterfall? What are the differences there?” Like in data, “Do we need to protect the data? Do we make the data open?”

These are the questions that people need to be asking outside of the IT department and outside of the procurement group because they’re the ones that set the agenda for what you could describe it to the back-office shops IT and procurement. What I’m going after is like the front office people and not junior, but a mid-level position that can have an influence. By doing that, we open up the world of GovTech to a lot more people. That thinking is what frames my approach of deliverable driven education.

If that project manager can walk away from the class and go back to their managers, the director of the department and be like, “Look at this amazing dashboard I created. Here’s all the thinking behind it.” That person may get promoted or that person may get a larger portfolio. I had a conversation with someone else. When I look at my own personal metrics and I look at my year review, the main question I asked myself is twofold. One, do the people I’ve worked with within government been promoted or have more responsibility or doing more than they were beforehand?

RTI 19 | Local Government Technology

Local Government Technology: A lot of times, the tools for innovation are already right in front of the government people who need them. What is needed is to train these people who to use them.


The second is are the vendors that I exclusively work with, a set of vendors that follow modern practices, getting more and more market traction? Have they gone from 10 cities to 50 cities or 50 cities to 100? Those are the metrics I look at because to me, that’s what I describe as institutional change. When the pieces of the puzzles themselves change, that’s institutional change. That’s what I’m trying to go after the Civic Innovation Academy at scale. A lot of people are trying to do this on a one-on-one basis or even a group basis with some of those conferences we discussed, but at scale, I don’t see something out there.

Until we solve that problem, we’re going to have this big gap between the cities that have that talent and that expertise than cities that don’t. To be fair to your point, it may not be big versus small but it’s going to be the haves and the have nots. Going back to my thesis in general, that’s bad for democracy. You would want everyone to have the best tools available to make the best decisions available, to help the most people possible. Until we get to that place where we can confidently say, “City of Centralia, Illinois. We can help you build an innovation program around the things that you need.”

That’s the last thing I’ll say on this is for some people, they don’t need the whole kitchen and sink of “innovation.” For some people, they figured out how to do permitting well or hiring well. They figured out how to do that one thing well, they’ll be happy and have a demonstrable impact on citizens’ lives. Focusing on actionable things that are city-specific and helpful is going to be a challenge for me as I move forward with this project.

You’re talking about giving a different angle of thinking or angle of attack to people who already have the tools but they don’t know what to do with it. Tyler Technologies is everywhere in the local space, and every day they buy a new emerging tech company. If you’re a SaaS customer, you have all these tools available to you.

Part of my motivation from this almost started as a joke between me and a friend. My friend, Steve Ressler, used to run a social network for government employees called GovLoop. They still run an annual conference, which is training-focused because it’s focused on mid-level or junior government helping them network and grow in their careers. He’s like, “Come and give a talk.” I was like, “What’s the most useful thing they could learn?” He’s like, “Whatever you want.” I was thinking like, “What’s the most useful thing they could learn? They’re mostly federal, mostly junior or mid-management.

I’m like, “I could teach him how to do simple data science, teach them how to do marketing.” There’s a bunch of that. If I was one of those people, what I would most want to know are what are the tools that are out there right now that I can use for free immediately to help me do my job better or if not for free, cheaply. As you know, the modern web is populated. It’s overrun with different SaaS enterprise tools that you can use either for free or for a cheap monthly cost that will dramatically improve the way you operate. I give a talk every year. It’s a conference called How to Be A Poor Man’s Hacker.

If you don’t have the actual technical skills or the budget to go buy something big and new, how can you use an Airtable plus If This, Then That to get a database of text message recipients or something like that? There’s a great tool called If This, Then That and Zapier and all of those that do cool things that you can connect into. I come back to the staple which is Microsoft Office and Google apps. If you had a deeper understanding of how to use those, you can do a lot of powerful stuff but people don’t know how to do it.

I bet if you did a poll of the number of people in public who knew what a macro is, it would be a small number. If you did that same analysis for a local government employee, that would be even smaller. To your point, training these people how to use the stuff that’s right in front of them. Another great example is the Esri. Every city in the country has an Esri. Almost all of them have enterprise licenses, which means anyone in the government can use it.

I don’t even call it GIS, but if you knew effectively do mapping, you could use that tool and have most of your government data right there at your fingertips. People don’t know that’s there. If they know that it’s there they’ll be like, “That’s a big, scary-looking icon on my desktop and I’m not going to click on it.” By lowering the barrier to entry across the board for people using technology, people hiring, people, etc., making it a little bit easier is important. Beyond that, when you do make it easier and get people more engaged, it’s much more likely that they’re going to try other things as well. It’s back to that virtuous cycle approach.

Institutional change is when the pieces of the puzzle themselves change. Click To Tweet

It goes without saying that you’re helping your employees become better. Who knows anymore going forward how unemployment is going to look or talent acquisition or retention is going to look for the government? Before COVID, we know clients that struggle to hire people with skillsets especially in the bay area, we have clients that couldn’t find a CIO for the longest time. It’s strange.

Part of what I do for a living is recruitment. A city says they want to hire a new CTO and then I will go call all of my networks and see if they know people. I’ll go to the meetups locally if I’m in that city and talk to people. This connects everything we’re talking about is not only do you need a perspective shift, but you also need to change your approaches. You need to change the way you operate yourself even before you bring in someone.

There’s a lot of work to be done. I want to make this clear. Do I think this Civic Innovation Academy is the only thing needed? I’ve always been an ecosystem thinker of like, “What are the different pieces of the GovTech landscape do we need to paint or we need to weave together?” The Academy is a piece of it. I think we still need top-notch consultants going in and helping governments reevaluate particularly naughtier problems. We need a huge and growing list of GovTech SaaS providers.

We need more media coverage of that to help that fire grow into a flame. We need a lot more people caring about the government and willing to go work for them. These are all different components that different people need to tackle. If I were to make one general editorial comment is that what we’re missing now in the GovTech space, particularly in the US is that center of gravity that helps people organize their efforts around. Paint that picture of you get started by taking a course on the Civic Innovation Academy, then you bring in a consultant to help you write the job description and do recruiting. You then have them work with this X, Y and Z GovTech vendors to solve their problems. That gets coverage in this new magazine that we’ve published or in GovTech magazine or the existing ones, etc. There needs to be that pipeline. I feel like the pieces are there but we haven’t had all the conversations to make sure everyone knows that the pieces are there.

What you’re doing is putting that one piece in action and then you’ll connect the tentacles with these other pieces that need to go. I wish you the best. That’s a fascinating idea. As soon as I saw it on LinkedIn, I said, “He’s onto something here.” Thanks for coming on. Is there anything else you want to talk about?

I want to say thank you. As I was mentioning, we need more people telling the stories of GovTech and IT innovation. The fact that you’re doing this on a regular basis is laudable and vital as people are thinking of new ways to approach these serious problems that we deal with in our society right now.

I appreciate that. Let’s do this again. I’d love to see what you’re up to next and how far you’ve taken our collective industry. Thanks again and I look forward to talking to you again.


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About Abhi Nemani

RTI 19 | Local Government TechnologyAbhi Nemani is a writer, speaker, organizer, and technologist. He currently runs a GovTech consultancy called EthosLabs, designed to accelerate good government through great technology, where he has consulted with dozens of cities and startups on growth, product, and innovation. He is also building and teaching a first-of-its-kind Civic Technology course at the University of Chicago.

Previously, Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento appointed him as interim Chief Innovation Officer to build out the city’s budding startup sector, through venture investments, grants, and partnerships. Before that, he served as the first Chief Data Officer for the City of Los Angeles, where he led the city’s efforts to build an open and data-driven LA. As CDO, Abhi led Los Angeles to the #1 ranking for US open data cities and mobilized LA’s growing developer community through multiple events and challenges to put that data to work. To drive innovation within city hall, Abhi built a nationally-recognized Mayoral Dashboard, led data and analytics trainings for city staff, and piloted data science projects to address key policy issues. Prior to joining LA’s Mayors Office, he helped build, launch, and run the national non-profit, Code for America, a technology organization dedicated to reinventing government for the 21st century.

Abhi led CfA’s product strategy as its teams tackled local government challenges ranging from transparency and business licensing to food stamps and public safety. He also led the organization’s efforts to scale through building multiple new programs: a first-of-its-kind civic startup accelerator, an international volunteer corps, and a collaborative network for hundreds of government innovators. Additionally, Abhi developed the organization’s policy portfolio — working hand-in-hand with area experts and local leaders — to enact over 30 municipal policy reforms on topics including open data, healthcare, and procurement.

Abhi has served as a Member of the Board of Directors for the OpenGov Foundation, a member of the Board of Directors of Data4America, and has served as Innovator-in-Residence at GovDelivery. He is also an advisor and investor in multiple govtech startups, including CityGrows and SPIDR Tech. Previously, Abhi worked for Google, the Rose Institute of State and Local Government, and the Center for American Progress. He graduated magna cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a honors degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE), and studied political philosophy and rhetoric at the University of Oxford.

Abhi’s work has been featured in the New York Times, Government Technology, Government Executive, and Forbes, and he has been featured as a speaker at SxSW, the World Bank, and various universities and conferences around the world.