Tag Archives: kuali

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.

Adapting KUALI financials for cities: Marin County is looking for Partners

Readers of my blog will be familiar Kuali – the coalition of universities that co-create a suite software  core to their operations – as I’ve blogged about several times and argued that it is a powerful model for local governments interested in rethinking how they procure (or really, co-create) their software.

For some time now I’ve heard rumors that some local governments have been playing with Kuali’s software to see if they can adapt it to work for their needs. Yesterday, David Hill of Marin County posted the comment below to a blog post I’d written about Kuali in which he openly states that he is looking for other municipalities to partner with as they try to fork Kuali financials and adapt it to local government.

<dhill@marincounty.org> (unregistered) wrote:

I completely agree.  It is a radical change for government in at least four ways:

1)  Government developers (are there any?) have little experience with open source
2)  CIOs have no inherent motivation to leave the commercial market model
3)  Governments have little experience is sharing
4)  CIOs are losing their staff due to budget cuts, and have no excess resources to take on a project that appears risky

But, let’s not waste a crisis.  Now is the best time to get KUALI financials certified for government finance and accounting and into production.

Please contact me if you are  planning to upgrade or replace your financial system and would like to look at KFS.
Randy Ozden,  VivanTech CEO is a great commercial partner
David Hill,
County of Marin

David’s offer is an exciting opportunity and I definitely encourage any municipal and county government officials interested in finding a cheap alternative to their financial management software to reach out to David Hill and at least explore this option. (or if you know any local government officials, please forward this to them). I would love nothing more to see some Kuali style projects start to emerge at the local level.

Saving Cities Millions: Introducing CivicCommons.com

Last year, after speaking at the MISA West conference I blogged about an idea I’d called Muniforge (It was also published in the Municipal Information Systems Association’s journal Municipal Interface but behind a paywall). The idea was to create a repository like SourceForge that could host open source software code developed by and/or for cities to share with one another. A few months later I followed it up with another post Saving Millions: Why Cities should Fork the Kuali Foundation which chronicled how a coalition of universities have been doing something similar (they call it community source) and have been saving themselves millions of dollars.

Last week at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, DC my friends over at OpenPlans, with who I’ve exchanged many thoughts about this idea, along with the City of Washington DC brought this idea to life with the launch of Civic Commons. It’s an exciting project that has involved the work of a lot of people: Phillip Ashlock at OpenPlans who isn’t in the video below deserves a great deal of congratulations, as does the team over at Code for America who were also not on the stage.

At the moment Civic Commons is a sort of whitepages for open sourced civic government applications and policies. It doesn’t actually host the software it just points you to where the licenses and code reside (say, for example, at GitHub). There are lots of great tools out there for collaborating on software that don’t need replicating, instead Civic Commons is trying to foster community, a place where cities can find projects they’d like to leverage or contribute to.

The video below outlines it all in more detail. If you find it interesting (or want to skip it and get to that action right away) take a look at the Civic Commons.com website, there are already a number of applications being shared and worked on. I’m also thrilled to share that I’ve been asked to be an adviser to Civic Commons, so more on that and what it means for non-American cities, after the video.

One thing that comes through when looking at this video is the sense this is a distinctly American project. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, during a planning meeting on Thursday I mentioned that a few Canadian cities have contacted me about software applications they would like to make open source to share with other municipalities, everyone and especially Bryan Sivak (CIO for Washington, DC) was keen that other countries join and partake in Civic Commons.

It may end up that municipalities in other countries wish to create their own independent project. That is fine (I’m in favour of diverse approaches), but in the interim I’m keen to have some international participation early on so that processes and issues it raises will be addressed and baked into the project early on. If you work at a city and are thinking that you’d like to add a project feel free to contact me, but also don’t be afraid to just go straight to the site and add it directly!

Anyway, just to sum up, I’m over the moon excited about this project and hope it will turn out. I’ve been hoping something like this would be launched since writing about Muniforge and am excited to both see it happening and be involved.