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Andrew Kirk: Hello, I'm Andrew Kirk City Sourced Chief Revenue officer and today I'm talking to Abhi Nemami who helped launch Code for America, served as the city of Los Angeles first Chief Data Officer and later interim Chief Innovation Officer under Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. Currently, he's the founder of Ethos Lab, a Govtech consultancy.
Abhi Nemani: Thanks Andrew I'm glad to be here. This sounds like a fun conversation. Glad you guys are doing this. We need more conversations like this in this space.
Andrew Kirk: So as our listeners hopefully know our goal with the GovConnect podcast is to speak with as many interesting and diverse leaders in order to learn about the rapidly changing roles within local government. Abhi, welcome to GovConnect. Yeah, well, thank you for participating really excited to have you on you have a really interesting unique track record in a short amount of time. So we'll kind of jump right in, now you grew up in rural Southern Illinois, I think was a town of a population under 15,000, you went on to a liberal arts college in Southern California and ultimately moved into these kind of cutting-edge innovation public sector roles.
So really interesting tell us a little bit more about that background. I think starting with Code for America. How did you get into that role? And how did that ultimately transition then into the public sector?
Abhi Nemani: What if you wanna to take the way way back machine back in southern Illinois there is a town called Centralia. Growing up I always thought I was going to be a doctor. I'm a first-generation immigrant and my dad was a doctor and that's kind of what I thought I was going to do and then I found this show that some of you guys might have seen called The West Wing.
And it kind of changed my perspective on everything. I was like, oh my God, I have to do government stuff. This is the coolest thing ever. This is where important things happen and people have fun doing their jobs. And so I kind of changed my whole perspective and decided I wanted to go work in either politics or government.
And so I ended up going to Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, which is a school that focuses on kind of public policy and government and while there, I worked at a research institute called the Rosen that focused on state and local government. And at the same time I was pursuing a degree in philosophy politics and economics.
So I was kind of gearing myself up for either being like a policy person or a lawyer., I realized this is back in 2006 and 7 that you know, people were starting to do interesting things with technology and specifically the Web, building websites to help campaigns, building websites to help make issues more.
And I ended up being kind of the nerd in the room. I was kind of always interested in technology. I built my first computer when I was 11. And so it turned out that like all of these organizations that I was helping out ranging from these political organizations that research institute. They kind of needed someone to build stuff.
And it was fascinating to me to see how even simple things Andrew like just like a WordPress app could like dramatically change the outreach and impact of these organizations. For the Research Institute that I worked at we built a digital library for all of the records they had in California government and all we did at that point because this is the beginnings of like a good OCR is we just scanned all of the books we had and put them online on a simple web app and it took all of this stuff that was sitting in closets in our Research Institute in Southern California and made it publicly available to everyone and put this Research Institute, this small liberal arts Research Institute on the map.
And so that really was eye-opening to me of that role that technology can play in kind of expanding that impact of important organizations. Then I kind of got the technology bug. I was gonna go work at Google because that was kind of a dream come true for me a little kid from Southern Illinois, but at the same time a friend who's now a friend of mine tweeted out this link to an organization called Code for America and it was called using technology to change local government.
And I was like, oh my God, is someone pranking me? This is like exactly what I've been working on for the last four years and I've been passionate about. And so just like, you know dumbly is like I think I was 19 years old then or 20 years old then soon to be graduating senior sent an email saying hey, I'm not a proper technologist, but I know how to do some things I can make some websites.I can build, you know, flyers and marketing materials Etc. But I think what you're doing is really important and this Woman's name was Jennifer Pahlka and she was the founder of Code for America and she got back to you right away and said, yes, please help. This is when she had just started the organization and one thing led to another and it up turning down my Google job stayed at Code for America for four years as full-time staff took on a bunch of different roles and during that same time we saw this explosion of what you could call civic or government innovation happening in cities across the country, so I really just got swept up into this fantastic movement or industry of things happening.
Andrew Kirk: That's incredible. I love that Code for America in your mind could have actually just been a Punk’d episode. You didn't know in the initial beginning there whether this was real because it was so well written for your specific skill set there coming out of undergrad.
Abhi Nemani: Andrew at that time it was just like a website with a logo and like a sign up form. Like that's all it was. So I thought one of my friends was just like oh here this will be funny will take all the way from Google and just have to do this, you know, but it ended up being a real thing.
Andrew Kirk: Nice, so you spend a couple of years there at Code for America and then you ultimately make the transition through a few roles into actually working in the public sector. So, how did you make that transition? How did you become the first Chief Data Officer of the City of LA?
Abhi Nemani: That's a great question. So what we started to see at CFA that's Code for America for short was that you know, the model was we would send fellows into a city government for a year to show how technology can work differently and what that ended up becoming was kind of like an appetizer for these City governments and they wanted like a main course, right?
So they saw the potential of this technology. They saw that these people could do amazing things, but then they were gone after a year. And so they were wondering okay. So what now? Of course they have the applications the fellows built they could keep using those but they wanted people like that all the time to help them out.
So we ended up building kind of a practice around helping government's figure out how to retool their organizations to be more modern and to be more technology forward and a big piece of that was recommending to cities that they hire Chief Information Officers, Chief Technology Officers, Chief Data Officer's and then staff to support those roles.
So they actually did have modern technology organizations to address modern policy and administrative problems. So throughout the course of the four years I was at CFA we ended up helping appoint roughly 40 to 50 people into those jobs across the country or creating those jobs that needed to be filled and just one flag I should mention anyone listening to this. Is there still a lot of cities across the country even more now than then there are looking for people in those jobs. So people if they are interested in working in the public sector should always go looking around for cities some that you may not expect are looking to hire talented people into their organizations.
But so one of the cities that I helped out with more directly than not was the City of Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti had recently gotten elected and we had a lot of calls with his Deputy Mayor Rick Cole to help him figure out kind of how they should set up their organization and one big recommendation was the City the size of LA and kind of the sprawling government apparatus and the sprawling City a big need would be a Chief Data Officer.
So I'm going to bring all the information together and make it accessible and usable not just for city government, but for the residents. And so they were kind enough to offer me that job. I initially decline because I was still at Code for America,
I was just like I'd been sitting on kind of not the sidelines like we were hands-on working inside government working with government, but not inside and I figured if I was going to talk the talk, I should walk the walk. And so I decided it was time that I should actually jump inside local government and actually see what it was like myself on the inside. Kind of do my own fellowship program as it were inside government to understand what's really going on with my own eyes.
Andrew Kirk: Awesome, so you have the City of LA you go up to the City of Sacramento clearly two large significantly important cities in California and throughout the United States and you're still young. You're a rising star in local government. So why do ultimately make this transition out of and into Ethos Labs, which is your consulting agency today.
Abhi Nemani: Hey, I'm not that young. I'm about to turn 30. Okay, so I got the young thing when I was like 24 doing this. I'm not going to take the young thing anymore.
Andrew Kirk: You're young-ish.
Abhi Nemani: Okay, um, it's a good question. So one thing so one thing I didn't mention at CFA so we had this fellowship program. But one thing we learned early on was that the fellowship program couldn't scale. So I think the number is roughly 50,000 local governments in the United States alone.
So even if we built the largest most scalable fellowship program in the world, there's no way we could send fellows to every single city in the country. Right? So we had to think about scale in a different way and we had to realize that these tools we were building for cities. second thing is, , not every city can hire three or four top-notch developers full-time for forever. Let alone a year again.
I grew up in a town of 13,000 people. I think they have one part-time web developer building the website and that's all they can afford right now. So the idea that every city buying and hiring full-time dedicated technology staff doesn't really make sense.
one thing we started thinking about early on at Code for America was how do we support scalable software as a service government technology and CitySourced is a great example of that. And so we actually built an accelerator program that helped government technology startups kind of get to scale, get some financing from Venture Capital, connect with city governments, and get the recognition they needed to help, you know blow out their brands so they could grow as companies. you're right I did work for larger cities. I'll say Sacramento's much smaller than Los Angeles and that's part of the reason I went to Sacramento to see what a midsize cities like.
This belief that there is a strong need for a vibrant ecosystem of government technology startups and eventually government just technology companies that are providing modern, sustainable, and scalable solutions to governments not just in the US but around the world actually work now with a lot of international companies.
And so that's kind of how this idea for ethos labs emerged which was basically what needs to happen for that to work. There's a lot of things that need to happen. I shouldn't say have all the answers and anyway, but at least two things need to happen is governments need to understand: what's out there and be able to work with the companies that are out there which involves things like procurement reform having some technical not expertise at least knowledge. Maybe that's training Etc. But then on the flip side startups that are either currently working with government or want to work with government need to just know how that works. Right? They need to know how governments operate than you know who to talk to they need to know what product market fit looks like.
So if you build something for say a police department could that work for fire and then they need to know like how you could get financing and investment to get to scale. And unlike other Industries, say healthcare, energy, where are they are these huge supporting infrastructures accelerator programs, mentorship programs, Venture capitalists that are out there helping these entrepreneurs get their businesses to scale. Govtech, we don't really have that yet. I mean my friend Ron runs the Gov Tech fund, but that's the only specifically government focused Venture Capital fund out there and he only invests in a handful of companies every couple of years so that that again doesn't scale.
And so what I decided to do with ethos labs was create an organization, that would do hands-on consultancy. Consulting with a couple of companies in a couple of cities at a time. I'm shifting more now to the companies for them realizing they need more of the help and then through that process help them get closer to scale and build some reusable resources right best practices, how to guides and some things like connections to venture capitalist some things like connections to press that other companies can use even without working directly with me.
Andrew Kirk: Well I know at CitySourced that's something we really underestimated in the early days. We were product, we were a tech-heavy company. We thought you know, if you build it they will come and they'll buy it and they'll stay on and we've obviously had success and continued on for almost nine years now since the founder was tinkering in a garage. But learning the other side of that coin, how governments work, how procurement process works was definitely a challenge. We were still very fortunate, we went through the Esri had a basically emerging business unit and we were the first one, they guinea pig tested this with and got this massive govtech company to help us and show us the way and it was still a challenge.
So there's definitely a lot of challenge and a lot of opportunity it sounds like you're tackeling.
Abhi Nemani: I would say one thing I've learned is what's real what's needed? Okay. So A there needs to be a lot more awesome tech companies like CitySourced like, you know one company working with Zencity a couple of others like there's a bunch of great companies, I'm sure you guys have probably seen this like sometimes the traditional VC model doesn't really make sense for Govtech. Like you're not going to see you know, 15 or 50 x returns in two years. It takes time to build out the product and then build out a sales pipeline to build to close sales and then to keep those growing. So that means either traditional venture capitalists have to understand how to expand their time horizons or we have to start looking at other financing models.
Maybe it's private equity. I don't know what it looks like yet, but I think those are the kinds of conversations we need to be having and I'm happy that I'm having some of those conversations but I invite many others to have them because I think until we get to that point where we have to what you exactly said that kind of infrastructure in place. We're not going to have the kind of robust disruptive industry that like everybody keeps talking about right Paul Graham, Reid Hoffman, like everybody keeps pointing to the space saying it's huge. But you know, we still haven't actually crack the code on how to do that.
Andrew Kirk: It's amazing you bring that up because in episode two of GovConnect, we talked to Nick Bowden who started My Sidewalk, was MindMixer before that. He's now at Sidewalk Labs raised 23 million in Venture Capital, which is incredibly successful for Govtech and talked about the same challenges that are in place in the VC model and he was able to do 23 million dollars.
Like you said private Equity may be an opportunity. Maybe there's family funds who don't need this massive unicorn style 10x but they like that government when you have traction can be very healthy returns, but not crazy risk. So there's definitely other models out there. So let's looking into local government civic innovation specific.
I know you thought a lot about and even first wrote about specifically back in 2014 about what's the right model. I'm curious. If that answer has changed in how you think about how local government can set up their model for civic innovation?
Abhi Nemani:. So I think one just candidly lesson learned is I and I'll take full responsibility for this is place probably too much emphasis on this need for c-level staff. On like hiring a Chief Data Officer and a Chief Innovation Officer. Of course, my resume looks nice because of it. So it's a little hypocritical I guess for me to say that but I do believe that's true.
One thing I've learned is you'll sometimes see cities appoint those roles without then providing the resources and backing to let those people do their jobs, right? So if you are say the Chief Information Officer for a city but you don't have hiring or firing authority, how are you going to really build out a modern technology group, right or if you're a technology Chief Data Officer and you want to build an open data program, but you don't have any budget to hire an ETL expert.
You're not gonna be able to do something. So. I worry that basically by giving what we have done, at least I have done again. I'll take personal responsibility for this by giving cities kind of the out as were by hiring the C-level job and saying look we're doing this. We're doing Innovation.
We're doing data without actually backing that up with the resources to make it happen. We basically hollowed out the impact that some of these people can have and I know most of these people and they're wonderful people, but if they don't have the resources to get it done, you're not going to be able to see real results.
Abhi Nemani: Sacramento when I built the Innovation office there one thing I specifically did based on lessons learned is we set up an operational budget that was tied to a specific fund musical fund that was guaranteed to effectively have a dividend every year of roughly 2 million dollars. So we set up our operational plan to always be beneath two million dollars so that included staffing, money for whatever tools you need to buy, events we needed to host, Etc.
So we knew that no matter what we could get the job done every year because that fund would always come in and that was counseled locked in. Right, so that couldn't be affected by any other budget approved another budget decision unless council change their mind on the structure of that fund which is a pretty big deal to make right.
So I think I would my recommendation to people, you know, getting those jobs now looking those jobs now is find ways to kind of formalize the roles and more importantly the offices and the responsibilities and the resources in a way that will always be guaranteed.
Andrew Kirk: Something you've really advocated for is more transparency in local government. And you yourself have kind of personally helped launch open data portals, which are still incredibly popular and were the biggest thing a few years ago, and now we see large tech companies getting into to playing or selling their own open data portals.
However, recently you've taken kind of a contrarian view and you think that cities should actually move away from them. Why is that?
Abhi Nemani: Just because you know, I'm hard to pin down on any idea at any given time Andrew. It's really hard to say. No. Yeah. No, it's a philosophy major in me man. It's what it is. No, so my thinking on this is.
To be clear. I actually think open data portals served a purpose. Right and I wrote an article about like looking at the arc around how open data happened in this country versus going to have how it happened in the UK. But again, if you think about the Arc of how open data is happening in this country or has happened in this country beforehand.
It was like a lot of FOIA requests. Like if you wanted data you'd have to like either call in or write a letter or go to City Hall and get the data straight from them sometimes on CD-ROM drives that you have to pay for, right? Then they started publishing some of it on their website. It was like zip files or csvs.
And then later now, you know, five six years ago, maybe four or five years ago they started doing these open data portals. So when you think about that Arc open data portals were great, right because as instead of like having to do all that painful process, you could just go to this one place and get it. The challenge I think is the disconnect between expectations and reality.
So I think the expectations of open data portals were that they're going to open like usher in this new wave of transparency and accountability in City Halls that we were able to hold our elected officials accountable and that regular humans, not people like us Andrew. Not people who are obsessed with government, not journalists, not researchers, but just regular people would go and look at this website and actually see what's happening because that's honestly that's how you get accountability. Right? It can't just be people like us looking at it. It would be regular people looking at it. The brass tacks truth of the matter is they don't right, the analytics for most open data portals is dismal and frankly the design of most is pretty poor to which I think feeds into the poor analytics that you're just not seeing people go to them because I think one person pleasantly said that they're like spreadsheets on the web. Which is like Google Docs, right? So and I do that not for fun. I do that for work, I don’t know why I’d go for fun to page through a city’s spreadsheets on the internet.
So I just think, if we really want to push this idea of accountability and transparency we shouldn’t be like burrowing away the data onto this other ugly website that no one’s going to go to. We should put it front and center right? So in the City of Los Angeles, I think the second most popular website when I was there was the library’s website.
I think they got roughly 4-5 million views a month, right? So why isn't all the data that matters a citizen's right there? Or lacity.org has been ranked the number one digital city in the country, right? Lots of people go to lacity.org, but why not embed say all the sanitation routes data or the sanitation pickup data on the page where you go look up when you're recycling dates are going to be because that's the webpage people are going to write like you're gonna go see when the trash collectors coming to your house.
Well, why not on that same page have the data about where the sanitation routes are going in general the same information that we publish on the open data portal. So my kind of challenge with open data portals is we've siloed off kind of the main core digital experience, which as you know, people are investing wonderful effort and time and expertise in building these beautiful new government websites.
So we have that and then we have these separate other websites that no one's going to so I don't know why we're not just pulling those together and creating a unified citizen experience where you can get both the information you want to know and the innovation you need to know at the same time.
Andrew Kirk: You’re difficult.
Andrew Kirk: Right, so thinking about the citizen even further. Let's talk a little bit about civic engagement and personally even just that word it's kind of a love-hate topic for me personally just because it's become this nebulous word that everyone uses and has become overused in the marketplace and we're as much to blame ourselves for being involved in that. Explain the changes that you've seen in in citizen engagement and really where you see it headed in the future. I know it's something that you've personally written about.
Abhi Nemani: You know what I really want to do right now Andrew. I want to go through your website and see how many times I see citizen engagement written. Just for fun.
Andrew Kirk: Well, that's all the time we have today. Thank you Abhi for your help. Clock is running out. Sorry there Abhi.
Abhi Nemani: the big change I've seen is a shift from engagement for engagement sake to engagement that either aligns with existing policy or aligns with existing what you call consumer or citizen behavior. So instead of just saying hey, what do you think we should do on this block?
It's hey, there's this three million dollar bond to redesign this this park. Here's three designs that we could have. Which one do you want? So it's getting much more specific and much more immediate, which I think is kind of putting what I describe as like putting skin in the game, right which also means and this is where I haven't seen as many cities do it as I'd like, but they actually say that like the feedback we get right and I think Nick probably spoke to this to like MindMixer.
I think sometimes they had cities commit to this but not always but it'd be great to see cities like commit like the feedback we get from this citizen engagement tool will actually be something we use right as you may remember the We the People app that the Obama White House put out. It had a thing where if they got 50,000 petitions the White House was mandated to reply and it actually got lots of engagement and my favorite was like is the White House building a death star right at the White House actually responded to it.
And that could be silly. But to me that's like meaningful Civic engagement. Like the citizens are asking something people are actually engaging on this website and the government saying something back to them. So I think this idea of like governments actually committing to doing something is really the trick to it.
And that's kind of where things are changing from just like putting up a website that people can go and like share their thoughts. I remember once there was an app where like you could just go on and like you'd have these like it looked like sticky notes and like on these sticky notes you can put your ideas for a better City and that was it like you just had these sticky notes on a website.
Andrew Kirk: Certainly, I think that this idea that you want citizens to be engaged. You talked about an arc and open data. I think that's a similar arc in civic engagement. It's trying to get them more and more engaged and using digital tools. I think the first iteration was just building anything out there that you could really push them towards I guess we've started think about the next one is the pull. I just start to understand what you as a citizen are interested in, what matters to you a lot through the interactions and through even simple surveying. There's a whole range of tools and then I start to use some Behavioral Science techniques incorporating into the way that I organize and run my government and then I start to push out to you and make it really meaningful if it's related to a park because you don't actually care about the three million dollar bond in that specific case.
The next iteration is being incredibly segmented, incredibly targeted and incredibly personalized towards the citizen and that's where you're going to get the deepest engagement. That's obviously a really incredibly robust problem and it's not going to happen immediately. But as more and more tools get built the better that the government I think can understand their citizen they can make specific targeted citizen engagement and really do an effort to push to them in the right means in the right factor.
Abhi Nemani: Totally, I think what we both are talking about is this idea of like this kind of Citizen engagement? I think there's another kind but this kind is basically talking right? Cities and citizens should be able to talk to each other and the meaningful way but to your point like the first step of talking well right is listening and as you're describing the listening problems really hard.
Right? Figuring out where people are talking, what they're saying, what matters to them and then thoughtfully responding to them and giving them the questions and the kind of prompts that make sense to them, where they are, when they would respond is a challenge. And that's where I look forward to like machine learning and artificial intelligence playing a big role in that moving forward.
Specifically you hit on challenges. Let's kind of look internally within the city. What do you think are the biggest challenges you see Chief Innovation Officers facing today?
Abhi Nemani: I would say it's threefold.
First is department siloing.. One challenge that I've seen personally and just know is that by making Innovation its own shop right that Innovation lives here. A) you have the problem of, and I again run into this every time there's something that comes up someone want to do they knock on your door, which is great.
But if you don't have a staff of 20 people, you can't always answer the door. Um, so. By making its own shop. You kind of end up with this kind of bottleneck issue where things always get stuck going through one place, but I think more importantly and more for me intellectually problematic is that my dream right is that innovation seeps into every.
And so I mean I think some efforts like, you know in San Francisco Joy the CDO there is doing a data Academy to train departments do their own data work. I know Denver has the Peak Academy to train departments and how to do lean development. But I think until we start pushing out this idea of innovation from just one individual office into different departments it's not going to be sustainable and frankly the chief Innovation officers are just going to go crazy because there's going to be too much to do that's one. Two is there I think there is still and I haven't been working in that job for a little while now, but I think there still isn't enough like real communication amongst and I won't just limit this to Chief Innovation Officers, but just amongst City technology.
There are a couple events. I know and the chief data officer side. There's a missile Data Network. There are some events that people go to and talk but often times like I can't tell you any times like for me. It's just so helpful to pick up the phone and be able to call someone else that I knew in another city and just be like, all right, I'm dealing with this person.
I'm contracting. What should I think about right? I won't tell mentions of the games. But even now I just had a conversation with the current c-level executive about a vendor and their have these questions and they're like, I just didn't know who to talk to and I'm like, well, I work them a couple years back.
So I'll tell you this and that and it was super helpful for them. So I do think there needs to be more communication amongst these individuals because these are new jobs right? There aren't best practice manual. I mean there are some being written now but there are really best practice manuals that you can turn to or you know academic schools of thought that you can lean on the book is still being written here.
And so I think that requires communication and then finally and I mentioned this before I think it's budgeting and resourcing because the way often Chief Innovation officers or any of these kind of new jobs are built out they aren't usually set up within the departmental structure. So usually sitting in city managers offices or they seat in mayor's offices that every time they need new budget and this is getting a little technical but for any local government nerds here, you'll understand what I'm talking about.
That's a special counsel class or special budget approval for that executive office. Which again as you may know is always a political problem because people don't like giving money to the Executive offices. So I think we have to solve either the organizational problem of where these roles sit or just figure out just alright, these jobs are now a department or a group that requires budgeting and it should be treated as another core line item in the budget just like Parks or Library.
Andrew Kirk: You highlight some incredible challenges and some potential solution. So it'll be interesting to see how those play out over the next couple of years. Moving forward I want to get started with what we do with every guest and it's called our rapid three questions. I'll give you three questions and you'll give me you know, quick answer and explanation then we'll move on to the next one.
So number one, CitySourced is all about the power that local governments can have in delivering more services via the smartphone. What type of phone do you use and what is your favorite mobile?
Abhi Nemani: I use an iPhone x and favorite mobile app is I want to say hinge but no I'll say Google Keep.
Andrew Kirk: Nice, use that one between my wife and I for all grocery list, kid list, it’s our hub, so I can definitely appreciate that. Number two, what's one book you most recommend or give away to others?
Abhi Nemani: This is easy Democracy in America. I've given away two original copies and about ten reprints.
Andrew Kirk: Wonderful and three what's one tool software or even non-tech hack that you're using to improve your life. And what's the use case?
You don't have request server space and you have something fun and cool. You can show everyone else and then it's really hard to say no to something once it's live and out there.
Andrew Kirk: That might be the greatest answer so far in terms of a software and a non tech hack of getting around approval. So love that. Well that ends our episode for today. Thank you so much Abhi for joining. I really appreciate it. Please let our listeners know where they can find out more information and connect with you online.
Abhi Nemani: Well, thank you first Andrew for having me on today. This was fun. You can find out more about Ethos Labs at Ethos Labs dot us. You can connect with me on Twitter at Abhi Nemani. That's Abhi Nemani and then my email is the same thing Abhi Nemani at gmail.com.
Andrew Kirk: Perfect, and we'll make sure that we link those on CitySourced.com in our show notes and if you want to learn more about how local governments are delivering services to their residents through a mobile app, please visit us at CitySourced.com. If you have any feedback on the show, I'd love to hear it.
Shoot me an e-mail personally. It's andrew@CitySourced.com or at Twitter at AndrewKKirk at Andrew K Kirk. We're on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music and Spotify. Please subscribe to the GovConnect podcast through your favorite podcast service and leave us a review. It really helps us spread the word that GovConnect is the podcast for local government Innovation.
Thanks for listening.