Stranger than fiction.
Not many projects start with a science-fiction novel but here is one. After many months of looking at government projects with mixed results the storyline in Annihilation by Alex Garland was starting to feel familiar to us. Putting down the book one of us asked: how do two different world’s meet? How can government and small business or startups better combine? We reached out to Code for Australia for their perspective. From working with government for many years they have found that bringing divergent thinking to all forms of government is hard. The question from the group became: how might we reconfigure the procurement process to bring better results for society?
Our own experience across two organisations was a good departure point but we were keen to learn what others experienced. We connected with senior government figures and startup founders working on their first, second (and more) ventures and asked: what is the tender journey like for you? Across several sessions we formed a picture of the customer journey for both groups and looked for any pain points or areas where we could make life easier for all.
Let’s go covert.
A number of factors that contributed to a poor experience of government tenders came up. The time involved, the amount of paperwork and proof required to proceed, the low or absent risk appetite of procurement, poor communications and many other features of government procurement were noted as issues. A common thread in many conversations was establishing trust: how can we trust the other team in a lengthy decision process and (potentially) long term project? We started thinking about ways we could increase trust and reduce fear of the unknown. Counter-intuitively we ended up with a concept that increased anonymity and forced intimacy at the same time.
We need fresh ideas, committed passionate people and better value for every public dollar.
– Government participant
Almost to a person startups told us they needed to be in the room with government to feel they have a chance of being considered for the job. They need to look them in the eye. For government it would be rare to take a chance on an untested supplier without personal experience of them. It looked the best approach was to bring the two groups together. Code for Australia have oodles of experience in the event format and knew the challenges in bringing government to the yard. The value exchange is becoming familiar in hacks, meet-ups and labs. We knew an event needed a different mechanic to address the existing issues around procurement. We wondered what it might be like to build a sense of mystery around an event, to intrigue people and make them want to find out what it’s all about.
In the spirit of sharing, finding the ideal concept here was not easy. Pretty Neat and Code for Australia share similar cultures and an experimental mindset but in working with government Code have an ethos that’s fundamental to them. Transparency is everything. The idea that the nurturing of relationships between government and startups would be opaque at first did not sit well. And the point was well made. Ultimately launching something that is to become it’s own organisation with a distinct mission, culture and method gave us all permission to push this idea as hard as we could. To test if we were headed in the right direction a pilot event was decided upon and set up for a few weeks in the future.
Spies like us
The Intelligence Service is good ideas uncovered. For the pilot we brought together people from government and startups with common interests. We asked them to work on a big challenge for society for a couple of hours under the cover of a secret organisation. We have been working on ways to address the barriers to better collaboration: identity, organisational history, career pathways – there are many. The first test of creating a very specific environment to aid cooperation was very promising. The first activity for a new organisation was also well received. A brand was developed, stationary and a minimal website, adding a touch of theatre and formality wherever it made sense.
Working with one another across initiatives for social good can only strengthen the way forward.
– Startup participant
While pilot ideas can happily be a little rough around the edges the team put a lot of work into making Mission X something we would learn a lot from. While we can’t say too much about the nature of the mission, surveillance was comprehensive. Insights into what government look for in supplier partners and what their concerns and hopes were around engaging new suppliers were revealed. For startups, empathy around the culture of government increased just a little (cynicism takes time to shift) and recognition of fellow dreamers and thinkers in their counterparts did occur. With the mission over the participants were free to share their personal stories and reason for being at the session. Over a meal some good connections were made – the participants even decamped to a nearby bar after the event to continue the conversation without us. New missions are now being planned for 2019 and The Intelligence Service will consider the next stage of growth with a successful test of the MVP.