Lessons from Michigan's "Innovation Fund" for Government Software

So it was with great interest that several weeks ago a reader emailed me this news article coming out of Michigan. Turns out the state recently approved a $2.5 million dollar innovation fund that will be dispersed in $100,000 to $300,000 chunks to fund about 10 projects. As Government Technology reports:

The $2.5 million innovation fund was approved by the state Legislature in Michigan’s 2012 budget. The fund was made formal this week in a directive from Gov. Rick Snyder. The fund will be overseen by a five-person board that includes Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB) Director John Nixon and state CIO David Behen.

There are lessons in this for other governments thinking about how to spur greater innovation in government while also reducing the cost of software.

First up: the idea of an innovation fund – particularly one that is designed to support software that works for multiple governments – is a laudable one. As I’ve written before, many governments overpay for software. I shudder to think of how many towns and counties in Michigan alone are paying to have the exact same software developed for them independently. Rather than writing the same piece of software over and over again for each town, getting a single version that is usable by 80% (or heck, even just 25%) of cities and counties would be a big win. We have to find a way to get governments innovating faster, and getting them back in the driver’s seat on  the software they need (as opposed to adapting stuff made for private companies) would be a fantastic start.

Going from this vision – of getting something that works in multiple cities – to reality, is not easy. Read the Executive Directive more closely. What’s particularly interesting (from my reading) is the flexibility of the program:

In addition to the Innovation Fund and Investment Board, the plan may include a full range of public, private, and non-profit collaborative innovation strategies, including resource sharing…

There is good news and bad news here.

The bad news is that all this money could end up as loans to mom and pop software shops that serve a single city or jurisdiction, because they were never designed from the beginning to be usable across multiple jurisdictions. In other words, the innovation fund could go to fund a bunch of vendors who already exist and who, at best, do okay, or at worse, do mediocre work and, in either case, will never be disruptive and blow up the marketplace with something that is both radically helpful and radically low cost.

What makes me particularly nervous about the directive is that there is no reference to open source license. If a government is going to directly fund the development of software, I think it should be open source; otherwise, taxpayers are acting as venture capitalists to develop software that they are also going to pay licenses to use. In other words, they’re absorbing the risk of a VC in order to have the limited rights of being a client; that doesn’t seem right. An open source requirement would be the surest way to ensure an ROI on the program’s money. It assures that Michigan governments that want access to what gets developed can get use it at the lowest possible cost. (To be clear, I’ve no problem with private vendors – I am one – but their software can be closed because they (should) be absorbing the risk of developing it themselves. If the government is giving out grants to develop software for government use, the resulting software should be licensed open.)

Which brings us to the good. My interest in the line of the executive directive cited above was piqued by the reference to public and non-profit “collaborative innovation strategies.” I read that and I immediately think of one of my favourite organizations: Kuali.

Many readers have heard me talk about Kuali, an organization in which a group of universities collectively set the specs for a piece of software they all need and then share in the costs of developing it. I’m a big believer that this model could work for local and even state level governments. This is particularly true for the enterprise management software packages (like financial management), for which cities usually buy over-engineered, feature rich bloatware from organizations like SAP. The savings in all this could be significant, particularly for the middle-sized cities for whom this type of software is overkill.

My real hope is that this is the goal of this fund – to help provide some seed capital to start 10 Kuali-like projects. Indeed, I have no idea if the governor and his CIO’s staff have heard of or talked to the Kuali team before signing this directive, but if they haven’t, they should now. (Note: It’s only a 5 hour drive from the capital, Lansing, Michigan to the home of Kuali in Bloomington, Indiana).

So, if you are a state, provincial or national government and you are thinking about replicating Michigan’s directive – what should you do? Here’s my advice:

  • Require that all the code created by any projects you fund be open source. This doesn’t mean anyone can control the specs – that can still reside in the hands of a small group of players, but it does mean that a variety of companies can get involved in implementation so that there is still competition and innovation. This was the genius of Kuali – in the space of a few months, 10 different companies emerged that serviced Kuali software – in other words, the universities created an entire industry niche that served them and their specific needs exclusively. Genius.
  • Only fund projects that have at least 3 jurisdictions signed up. Very few enterprise open source projects start off with a single entity. Normally they are spec’ed out with several players involved. This is because if just one player is driving the development, they will rationally always choose to take shortcuts that will work for them, but cut down on the likelihood the software will work for others. If, from the beginning, you have to balance lots of different needs, you end up architecting your solution to be flexible enough to work in a diverse range of environments. You need that if your software is going to work for several different governments.
  • Don’t provide the funds, provide matching funds. One way to ensure governments have skin in the game and will actually help develop software is to make them help pay for the development. If a city or government agency is devoting $100,000 towards helping develop a software solution, you’d better believe they are going to try to make it work. If the State of Michigan is paying for something that may work, maybe they’ll contribute and be helpful, or maybe they’ll sit back and see what happens. Ensure they do the former and not the latter – make sure the other parties have skin in the game.
  • Don’t just provide funds for development – provide funds to set up the organization that will coordinate the various participating governments and companies, set out the specs, and project manage the development. Again, to understand what that is like – just fork Kuali’s governance and institutional structure.
  • Ignore government agencies or jurisdictions that believe they are a special unique flower. One of the geniuses of Kuali is that they abstracted the process/workflow layer. That way universities could quickly and easily customize the software so that it worked for how their university does its thing. This was possible not because the universities recognized they were each a unique and special flower but because they recognized that for many areas (like library or financial management) their needs are virtually identical. Find partners that look for similarities, not those who are busy trying to argue they are different.

There is of course more, but I’ll stop there. I’m excited for Michigan. This innovation fund has real promise. I just hope that it gets used to be disruptive, and not to simply fund a few slow and steady (and stodgy) software incumbents that aren’t going to shake up the market and help change the way we do government procurement. We don’t need to spend $2.5 million to get software that is marginally better (or not even). Governments already spend billions every year for that. If we are going to spend a few million to innovate, let’s do it to be truly disruptive.

3 thoughts on “Lessons from Michigan's "Innovation Fund" for Government Software

  1. Daniel Haran

    Having 3 jurisdictions signed up to spec the software would make this a nightmare of a waterfall process. Along with open-source, funds would best be ear-marked for agile development. It takes (re-)writing the same software 3 times before implementors truly understand the problem; we should be encouraging many small projects that will help get to that point.

    Reply
    1. Luke Closs

      David’s not suggesting to have 3 jurisdictions to spec the software. He’s saying they should seek 3 jurisdictions that have similar needs. Then the one vender can use agile/lean development practices to build a project that works for all 3.  This should force the problem to be solved a little bit more generically, so that it’s not a stretch to get it to work for 30 more organizations after the 3 are mostly happy.

      Nobody wants design by committee.

      Reply
      1. James McKinney

        Yes, as Luke says, developers still have responsibility over spec, and, as I understand, David’s just saying that it’s important for those developers to have access to different users to ensure they build something that is useful for more than one user.

        Whether the developers should evaluate everyone’s needs from the start is up for debate. The first versions of Open 311 and GTFS were written by consulting with one government only. In at least Open 311’s case, major revisions were made when working with the second government to sign on.

        Reply

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