Why Entrepreneurs Should Go Work for Government

Michael Blanding interviewing Mitchell B. Weiss for HBS Working Knowledge:  “…In the past five years, cities around the world have increasingly become laboratories in innovation, producing idea labs that partner with outside businesses and nonprofits to solve thorny public policy problems—and along the way deal with challenges of knowing when to follow the established ways of government and when to break the mold. States and federal government, too, have been reaching out to designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs to help redo their operations. The new US Digital Service, for example, follows other federal efforts like 18F and the Presidential Innovation Fellows to streamline government websites and electronic records—adapting from models in the UK and elsewhere.

“We have many talented people in government, but by and large they have tended to be analysts and strategists, rather than inventors and builders,” says Weiss, who hopes his course can help change that. “One reason we didn’t have them is we weren’t training them. At policy schools we had not been training people to be all that entrepreneurial, and at business schools, we were not prepping or prodding entrepreneurial people to enter the public sector or even just to invent for the public realm.”

“Government should be naturals at crowdsourcing”

Government entrepreneurship takes many forms. There are “public-public entrepreneurs” who work within government agencies, as well as “private-public entrepreneurs” who establish private businesses that sell to government agencies or sometimes to citizens directly.

In Philadelphia, for example, Textizen enables citizens to communicate with city health and human services agencies by text messages, leading to new enforcement on air pollution controls. In California, OpenCounter streamlined registration for small businesses and provided zoning clearances in a fraction of the usual time. In New York, Mark43 is developing software to analyze crime statistics and organize law enforcement records. And in Boston, Bridj developed an on-demand bus service for routes underserved by public transportation.

The innovations are happening at a scale large enough to even attract venture capital investment, despite past VC skepticism about funding public projects.

“There was this paradox—on the one hand, government is the biggest customer in the world; on the other hand, 90 out of 100 VCs would say they don’t back business models that sell to government,” says Weiss. “Though that’s starting to change as startups and government are starting to change.” OpenGov received a $15 million round of funding last spring led by Andreessen Horowitz, and $17 million was pumped into civic social-networking app MindMixer last fall….

Governments could attract even more capital by examining their procurement rules to speed buying, says Weiss, giving them that same sense of urgency and lean startup practices needed to be successful in entrepreneurial projects…(More)”