Digital Mission to Washington DC: 10 Reasons Your Company Should Apply

Not long now until a group of digital government and social innovation geeks pack their bags and head over to the US with FutureGov and the Digital Mission gang to learn how things are done on the other side of the pond – and hopefully show them a thing or two as well with the best of UK digital innovation. 

But before all of that, I thought I’d fill you in on a good few reasons why we thought a Digital Mission to DC would be such a good idea…

1. Gov20

The Washington scene (perhaps unsurprisingly) is widely credited with giving birth to the phrase “Government 2.0”, or #gov20 for short all you twitter hashtag fans.

For Washingtonians, and now far more besides, the term gov20 (now WeGov thanks to our friends Andrew and Micah) captures a change in how government uses online to open itself up, using the web to bring a more human face to government, listening to, talking to and engaging with citizens online through a bunch of jazzy new web 2.0 technologies.

What is perhaps a little surprising is that it wasn’t in fact the Federal Government (that’s Central Government to us Brits) that led the charge in DC, rather the work of DC city government’s Vivek Kundra from a good few years ago now, moving over to become Chief Information Officer at the White House following the election of Barack Obama in 2008. He is now joined by other heavy hitters from local government, with Aneesh Chopra coming on board as CTO from the State of Virginia joined more recently new leaders such as Chris Vein, ex-CIO of San Fran and now Deputy CTO for Innovation in government. Local government rules ok! 

Back in March 2009, Gov20 Camp marked the beginning of big things, helping to usher in a new wave of digital government. The event attracted an impressive 500 people mostly from DC but many from elsewhere, giving a kickstart to the mass movement you see booming today.

Federal government itself has consolidated this movement through high level policy directives (first on opengov and now customer service) from people like the now advisor to the UK government Beth Noveck providing leadership cover for digital innovators to think big and get creative in government. They’ve also supported experimentation, for instance pushing all big Agencies to adopt tools like Ideascale to test out new approaches to bringing new ideas into government from citizens. All of which has been ably supported by a strong network of New Media Directors in posts across government owning the agenda and pushing it on.

There’s plenty continuing apace from some of the larger government suppliers too, with Microsoft’s recent launching their Innovation Center downtown and even Twitter now having a representative in DC. Other major players on the scene include Deloitte (including gov20 stars such as Bill Eggers and the GovLab team there), Booz Allen Hamilton, Phase One (oh and Phase2), Forum One and more are in town taking innovation to scale, working with agencies to make the most of the opportunities.

DC even has its own roving ‘in house’ reporter in the shape of O’Reilly’s Alex Howard (@Digiphile to you and me) who is doing a great job of reporting on all the big news coming out of DC in the gov20 world.

2. Online campaigning

DC is the original home of the wonk. You can’t so much as get a cab without being caught in a conversation on Healthcare while listening to CSPAN (cabbies are the biggest wonks of all in DC).

Hardly surprising then that you’ll find some major players in the online political scene here too, with the likes of Blue State Digial (the guys behind the Obama campaign in 2008), Edelman and others big news. But DC is also blessed with a bunch of smaller, younger upstarts like Echo Ditto and Beekeeper Group, representing a vibrant political and social campaign scene in DC.

3. Transparency

Not only is DC home to gov20 but also the home of the transparency and opengov movement. This is down in no small part to the likes of the world leading work of the likes of non-public Sunlight Foundation and the public labs and elections team at Google DC.

Locally, DC city government was also long time lead in publishing open data and globally major institutions like the World Bank lead by example from their DC base through projects like their Apps for Development programme.

DC really is the home of ‘open’.

4. Social innovation and non-profits

While government looms large in DC, there’s also plenty of progressive people getting creative in the local community too, sparking new social organisations and collaborations.Many based out of creative  like Affinity Labs and the upcoming Hub DC, social innovators are working to improve the city for local communities, for instance the H Street Project, and getting creative with it. A personal favourite of mine is the daily look into the lives of DC residents by the People’s District and hyperlocal blog Greater Greater Washington.

Then there are the big players on the social innovation scene making national change based out of DC, from the Corporation for National Service (and their UK emulated initiatives such as AmericCorp and SeniorCorp), the White House’s Serve.Gov Presidential priority project and others like the New Organizing Institute. And private sector players like the Google non-profit team, recently launching their offer to the non-profit scene.

FutureGov has even had a go at social innovation matchmaking in DC with the launch of Simpl with DC city government, showcasing and bringing together a range of individuals and organisations in DC thinking creatively and making social innovation happen.

5. Open source

Once an impossibility in government, under the Obama administration open source has become a must. No longer an exception, open source is now central to all government strategies and readily available through initiatives such as

Drupal are kings with companies like Rock Creek leading the charge, with other platforms like Wordpress coming up on the inside with recent high profile uses in government for instance the CFPB site that launched earlier this year.

6. Data

Whether Big or Open, data is where it’s at in DC right now. Leading the charge are Todd Park and team at Health and Human Services. Building on the work of the White House and their initiative, HHS have launched

Where HHS is leading the pack many Agencies are now following, for instance the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau setting its stall out to be a Big Data driven agency with technology and data at the heart of everything it does.

And this is just scratching the surface. DC is stuffed full of opportunities for data dudes to geek out that’s for certain.

7. Cloud, mobile and apps

Apps for Democracy, building on the work in the UK of the Cabinet Office with their Show Us a Better Way initiative, sent DC app crazy. This was shortly followed up by Apps for America from the Sunlight Foundation and now there is a whole range of initiatives out for developers to play with, from Apps for Communities from the FCC to Apps for Healthy Kids from US Department of Agriculture.

Many of which are mobile (see what I did there?). The likes of GSA’s @Gwynnek are working on making mobile a key future platform of government services delivery. Still in early stages and a real opportunity to support government to deliver on its aspirations.

All of which is being supported by increasing amounts of work to bring the cloud to government. People like @MaryDavie, again at the GSA, are pushing this agenda at some pace, recently leading by example by moving their Agency’s email over to Gmail. More and more government websites are also finding themselves in the cloud, a trend set to continue.

8. Startups

Once a digital startup wasteland, 2011 appears to be the year of the startup in DC. Super charged by recent events such as the accelerator hosted by iStrategy Labs, as well as the odd incubator popping up such as Clay Johnson’s Big Window Labs, the start up scene is really beginning to take off. And that’s not forgetting long standing shared workspaces such as Affinity Labs of course which has been bringing people together for some time now, collaboration space soon to be added to by the forthcoming Hub DC.

9. Meet ups

DC is a mighty sociable place. Rarely does a night go by without someone putting on a meet up (or two) of some sort or other, bringing together the politicos, techies and social innovators. Whether just a small and informal drink or the huge DC Tech Meetup, you won’t be short of an evening out.

10. Sightseeing

White House, Capitol Hill, Lincoln Memorial, the Mall, the Monument, the Smithsonian, Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria…

Need I say more?

DC crew help me out here. I’m sure I’ve missed a tonne of great work and great people making it happen. Get commenting!

See you in July if not sooner.

// Apply for the Digital Mission to Washington 

Photo (cc) Vinoth Chandar