Section 2: Disruption in Process:
Zac Bookman and Cameron Galbraith, OpenGov: Putting Government on a Networked Platform
Zac Bookman and Cameron Galbraith, OpenGov
OpenGov is a technology company that is building a platform for governments to share and communicate information.
Describe the status quo of the industry you’re disrupting and where you see the inefficiencies.
Governments have been underserved by technology for a long time, particularly for managing and accessing their financial data. Most of the time, data is siloed in accounting systems and enterprise resource-planning systems that are difficult to use and are not suited for financial transparency or business-intelligence purposes. When officials want to present their data to fellow administrators, to elected officials or to the public, they have to put it in linear formats that don’t reflect how governments actually operate. The most common example is the budget book, a static and highly technical document that can easily span hundreds of pages. Even when you do have meaningful data on a government, the unique meaning of the data for that government, combined with the difficulty in obtaining it for other governments, make comparisons across governments extremely difficult. In other words, there are pervasive data-access problems.
Consequently, most stakeholders are many steps removed from the data, or completely in the dark. Government officials may have access to the data through their accounting or ERP [enterprise resource planning] software, but it requires a significant amount of time to fully utilize the reporting functions of these systems. Furthermore, the data usually has to be exported to Excel, manipulated and merged with other documents to produce a final product. That’s already a lengthy process, but if a person does not have access to those systems, then the turnaround time can easily grow to several days or weeks because they need to ask someone to create a report for them.
For example, if a mayor wanted to know how much his or her city spent on libraries, he or she might have to go to the city clerk, who goes to the library director, who goes to a finance director, who asks an accountant, who runs a report, and then it has to go back through the chain. Even simple questions can take a long time to answer. If a citizen has a question, such as how much is spent on public safety, getting that information can be difficult to impossible. Usually, that citizen has to fill out and submit an information request, and then somebody in government has to conduct a research project, which can take weeks or months.
These existing workflows take a lot of time, an increasingly rare commodity for government officials. Rather than spending scarce time and resources resolving important issues, many officials have to work through rote processes like chart formatting or running reports for themselves and others. The delays and the friction present in the decision-making process result directly from these data-access problems, which significantly hurt the quality of services that governments provide to their citizens.
Describe the imagined end state, or the reimagined way, in which government interacts with data.
Our goal is to help public administration become more digital, data-driven and efficient. Data should be easily accessible to all the key stakeholders and free of the friction that comes with data siloes and rote processes. When those barriers are removed, government officials are free to focus their time and talents on issues that matter most to the people they serve.
Our vision is to bring all this data onto one platform and create a network for financial data, enabling comparative analytics between governments and deep insights into how governments function. We can accomplish this by creating structured data that’s not simply a two-dimensional data set that is visualized with a preset graph, but data that is relational and dynamic so that users can truly interact with it. The platform can calculate and render new views on the fly, so users can get to the data they need in a few clicks instead of days or weeks.
Governments should be able to learn from each other, and they’ll be able to do this with “OpenGov”. Data from leading governments can be easily accessed, understood in the proper context and used as a benchmark. Because we’re working with structured data, our system understands what the data means to that particular government and, by extension, how that relationship differs across governments. Our engineers and data scientists have built some truly amazing technology to enable meaningful comparisons across governments. Instead of just searching for key terms, such as “police”, and hoping you find all the relevant results, the OpenGov Platform allows for “apples to apples” comparisons. As more governments join the platform, the quality of the data and the quality of the insights become even richer. It creates a virtuous cycle of more data and higher-quality data.
Markets should have better access to government financial data, too, because that ultimately benefits governments and citizens. For example, it’s impossible to meaningfully compare a large number of governments like one could do with publicly traded companies through S&P Capital IQ or Google Finance. That lack of market context means that an uncertainty premium is priced into municipal bonds, raising borrowing costs. By bringing all this data into one networked platform, we can enable those comparisons and make the municipal financial market more efficient. By extension, that makes government spending more efficient.
What are the key benefits of OpenGov for society?
Governments are increasingly asked to do more with less, so improving data access and decision-making related to financial data will have far-reaching effects.
In the short term, OpenGov solves the pressing data-access problems that slow and frustrate government administrators. Rather than having to defer important decisions because more data is needed but inaccessible, OpenGov allows administrators to get the data they need right away. They also have more flexibility in dealing with important issues because they no longer have to spend time formatting data or waiting to receive it. Governments can therefore make well-educated decisions much quicker than they could before.
Furthermore, OpenGov builds and strengthens bonds between governments and citizens. By clearly communicating how governments operate, OpenGov helps public administrators earn the trust they deserve and allows citizens to understand how their government serves their community. With mutual trust, governments and citizens can make better decisions together, with their shared, long-term successes in mind, resulting in safer neighbourhoods, better schools and an overall better quality of life.
In the long term, OpenGov is changing the way people interact with and understand government finances. With OpenGov, administrators will be able to make valuable and accurate comparisons across governments in a way that was never possible before. That will allow governments to share best practices and learn from each other, so that the wisdom and lessons from experience are no longer isolated to one community or even one person, but are able to propagate through the network and serve a much larger population. That will continue to improve the quality of decisions made not only in government, but about government as well.
In practical terms, businesses working with the public sector will have better visibility into their target market, fostering better competition and behaviour with the knowledge that their data, like that of their competitors, will be public. Likewise, borrowing costs for governments will go down, as that uncertainty premium on municipal bonds, as mentioned earlier, is dramatically reduced. Billions upon billions of dollars will then be available for more productive uses, giving taxpayers a better return on their money and putting options, such as rainy-day funds or important infrastructure investment, within fiscal reach.
By empowering governments and making markets more efficient, OpenGov has already begun delivering better outcomes for citizens and society.
Why do you think it took a start-up to get this technology and this product out to governments? What is the barrier for governments to self-organize or analyse data by themselves? What do you bring that is unique to this process?
It’s partially timing and partially an intimate understanding of evolving technology.
OpenGov is the product of two major themes, or trends, in the last 10 years. One was the financial crisis and Great Recession, and the tremendous challenges they imposed on governments; the other was the rise of new cloud-computing technologies. “Software as a service” has been around for 10 to 15 years, but has really developed, in terms of the necessary infrastructure and market adoption, in the last 5 to 10 years.
Our founders, including Stanford technologists and experts in government finance and public administration, were at the intersection of these two major trends. They started by helping governments leverage the latest technology, and have been doing that for many years. We’re a technology company, but we intimately understand the needs of our government partners. That means we can assemble a truly world-class team of engineers, designers, data scientists, experts in public administration, investors and advisers to innovate and build new technology.
Importantly, we’re able to host and scale our solution so that any size government can benefit from the same powerful and flexible solution. Rather than building systems from in-house, from scratch, and spending millions of dollars in the process, governments are realizing the benefits and economies of scale with the OpenGov Platform.