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Lean Startup: Changing Government Services and Agencies to Better Serve the Citizens

A graphic for innovation and technology concepts in a tag cloud in the shape of a light bulb

It is easy to start a business today and especially an Internet-based business. Using the cloud, APIs, and hosted applications, an entrepreneur can quickly build a website/mobile app. The entrepreneur can hire freelancers to do everything from creating a logo to writing a business plan. Virtual assistant services can provide on-demand staff to meet business needs. Yes, it is easy to start a business. The hard part is creating and sustaining a business.

That is why Lean Startup was created. Eric Ries, the inventor of Lean Startup, describes the Lean Startup process as a simple loop that the entrepreneur travels through in launching, testing, and developing the business. First, there is an Idea that is Built into a Minimal Viable Product (MVP). The purpose of the MVP is to test a limited set of features or services. The entrepreneur Measures how potential customers interact with MVP. From the metrics Data, the entrepreneur Learns which features and/or services attracted customers and which were not well-received. The learning then leads to new Ideas and the loop starts over.

Through continuous building, measuring, and learning, the final product is validated. Even so, the eventual outcome may be very different from the original idea. Lean Startup practitioners refer to this as Pivoting. The main idea behind Lean Startup is to ask if the product should be built rather than can the product be built. Only products that have a demonstrated customer base will advance from the MVP stage to the final product.

How does this apply to government?

Lean Startup was used to answer President Obama’s mandate that government agencies improve customer service and delivery of government services. The most immediate federal government example is how Lean Startup was used in designing the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. One CFPB project was to combine and redesign two financial disclosure forms: the Truth in Lending form and the Good Faith Estimate form. The CFPB collected over 13,000 citizen comments as the combined form traveled through the Lean Startup loop to arrive at its final, more consumer-friendly design (“Government Take a Lean Startup Approach”).

Other examples of Lean Startup (mentioned in the Government Technology article):

  1. The City of Palo Alto redesigns its website using a Minimum Viable Website.
  2. The Food and Drug Administration used Lean Startup to improve its internal process for approving new medical devices.

Just this April, the General Services Administration (GSA) established 18F, which uses Lean Startup principles in creating digital services for other federal agencies. A Washington Post article describes how 18F designers and developers created–in 29 minutes–a functioning prototype of a mobile website for GSA that used an 18F-created API. “A more traditional development method—requiring a series of meetings between agency staff and IT companies—might have taken weeks or months, according to the team.”

This is not the first time that the GSA has used Lean Startup principles. In August 2012, the GSA held a meeting devoted to drafting guidelines for agencies in “developing and delivering digital services and managing data.” Agencies engaged in “sprints” (set amounts of development time) to create and refine iterative versions of the governance policy. Agencies started with a “Minimal Viable Policy” and tested the policy by sharing ideas with each other in presentations. By the November 23, 2012, deadline, agencies had robust and fully-developed policies created more rapidly than in the usual process.

In this age of tight budgets, more demands on government services, and higher customer service expectations, Lean Startup can be an effective way to design new government processes and services and to redesign current processes and/or services. Using Lean Startup in government can answer two fundamental questions. Is a particular government service the best use of taxpayer money? Will the government service satisfy the most number of citizens in the most efficient way?

If you would like to learn more about Lean Startup and its impact on government, start with these resources:

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