Dear Washington: It’s Time to Get Lean

Experimentation. Innovation. Lean. What are “words you would never associate with government, Alex?”

The Lean Startup is a hot, new(ish) concept that turns the established norms of entrepreneurship on their respective heads – the traditional business plan, forecasts, traditional financial documents…these take a back seat to agile development, the expectation of failure, and what Lean Startup architect Eric Ries has dubbed the “minimum viable product (MVP)”. Small businesses and startups, heart of the economy though they may be, are not the only entities in need of a little rejuvenation. At the other side of the spectrum lie those bureaucratic behemoths that are the agencies of the United States Federal Government.

Spoiler alert: this post is going to argue that opportunities do indeed exist for governments to implement contemporary startup practices, but let’s not get carried away here. Rapid changes, a cornerstone of the Lean Startup movement, are not easy for most government agencies, which typically have huge budgets and reams of time-honored policies and procedures. It’s not changing direction on rollerblades, it’s changing direction in a motor home. The question to ask is: where do we see overlap in the individual activities undertaken by government and startups?

How about website creation? Many new government initiatives – the Affordable Healthcare Act, for example – require a strong communication plan and online presence. Websites for these initiatives should be designed with clear, visible customer feedback channels, as well as the expectation that near-term changes to the site would be forthcoming, swift and constant.

Occasionally, a new government organization is created, presenting a unique opportunity to get off on the right foot by treating the new org as a startup business. In her article “Governments Take a Lean Startup Approach,” Justine Brown references the 2010 creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as an example of how the MVP and other Lean Startup principles can be implemented successfully in such a situation. More details can be found in the article at

As to whether the Lean Startup approach will gain a foothold in government operations, only time will tell. Experimentation is not necessarily looked upon favorably in the government. If the first iteration of a website/organization/service is poorly received by the public, the risk of politicians and government executives distancing themselves from it, rather than sticking around and creating a better solution based on customer feedback, is very real. Because of this, we should publicize and praise our elected officials for these rare attempts to incorporate the Lean Startup and other modern business philosophies into government. Even if some of the initial results are less than perfect, they need the practice!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s