Dec 18 2015

Massachusetts Launches GovNext Initiative to Experiment with IT Projects

The new Bay State program is designed to support pilot projects within the Massachusetts Office of Information Technology.

Massachusetts wants to dispel stereotypes about state governments being lumbering and inefficient. The Massachusetts Office of Information Technology, known as MassIT, recently launched GovNext, an initiative designed to make the office operate more like a startup. GovNext enables the state to quickly launch pilot projects whose successes or failures will help the government be much more nimble in responding to citizen’s technology needs.

Massachusetts Deputy State CIO Karthik Viswanathan is one of the key leaders of the initiative, which the state kicked off in November. GovNext will include municipalities and K-12 schools as well as state agencies. The overarching goal of the initiative is to make state government more responsive to the technology needs of constituents, Viswanathan told Government Technology last month.

A decade ago, he said, states would largely provide services and expect that constituents would come and take advantage of them. Now, with online tools and social media, governments have more channels to engage with citizens, he said. Additionally, the public’s expectations of government have changed. “It is a lot more a case of instant gratification, where people demand a lot more services a lot faster, and to get their problems and issues resolved much more quickly,” he said.

Different Types of Projects

GovNext supports three types of projects, each designed to draw on different resources within the state or to showcase certain innovations. The first is open track projects that include companies and individuals in the private and nonprofit sectors. The projects could be an open competition, pilot program, or public event. MassIT is encouraging those with a civic tech innovation idea to use its Open RFI.

The second type of projects is known as experimental track. These are short-term projects that last six months or less. They are intended to test the effectiveness of a relatively low-cost idea or technology that could have a large impact. “Experimental track projects have the potential to quickly deliver disproportionate business value, with benefits that far outweigh costs, so we embark on them with a higher tolerance for risk than traditional government projects,” according to the state website.

And the third project type is operational track. These projects are supposed to address a pressing operational need of a city or state agency. They are “expected to last from six months to one year, require in-house development work, transform the digital delivery of a critical service in the commonwealth, and deliver a significant public benefit.”

The Promise of GovNext

Viswanathan told Government Technology that most GovNext projects will last six to nine months, letting the government know quickly if they are successful. “And based on that learning process over those six to nine months, we can decide if that's a project which is sustainable in the longer run,” he said. “And if it fails, at least we know it was a quick run for the project, and then we don't have to spend a lot of time and resources on those projects.”

Viswanathan highlighted two GovNext projects. One is called “Where's my school bus?” which reconfigures an app developed by Code for America for the city of Boston for use in Brockton, Mass. He said it enables nearly 10,000 parents to track school bus routes and help them keep track of their children daily.

Another project, which was first launched in Oakland, Mass., and is being scaled to work statewide, is related to public records requests. “Rather than looking at it just as [an] individual city or town, we're going to expand this to multiple agencies within the commonwealth, and provide an open, transparent way for citizens to look at public records, how it's being requested and how quickly the state is able to respond to those requests as well,” Viswanathan said.

Traditionally, governments are resistant to taking risks and being early adopters of new technology, he said. GovNext lets Massachusetts experiment with new projects, products and technologies, he added.

“And with any early technology you do have a chance of a higher rate of failure, and what this really gives us is that short window and quick turnaround for projects,” Viswanathan said. “And for the development team, as well, they can be uninhibited as far as the program goes and how they implement these projects.”

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