Government contracting is cool and incredibly impactful

Ethan Aldrich

I’ve always thought government contracting and bringing technology to governments was cool. I mean, Batman and Iron Man do it!? Wakanda knows having the best technology is critical for their society to prosper. It’s impactful stuff. I thought everyone knew this sector.

Sadly though when I walk around Stanford and Silicon Valley nobody is talking about who won the Healthcare.gov contract and how they could’ve innovated better, nobody is talking about speed lining our procurement process, and nobody is talking about technology in criminal justice. Well very few people are at least. And I’ll bet that most people at Stanford don’t know that Stanford itself, and all of Silicon Valley was boomed by government contracting, grants, and initiatives.

Don’t worry though, there are plenty of people complaining about how slow government is, how bad healthcare is, and how our criminal justice system is flawed in about every way possible. But zero talk on the process, the business, and what makes government actually work.

I’ll give a quick example of my experience in the space because when I say I started a company selling correctional facility software I get somewhere between ‘huh’ and ‘that’s shady and not aligned with my political views’.

I started my company UNIT Innovations around 5 years ago. I started it after inmate Sandra Bland in my home state of Texas committed suicide in a local correctional facility. The news headlines blew up about what was going on and how terrible the correctional system was. Journalist after journalist absolutely trashed on the facility and the correctional system in general. And every single one of them was right, the facility was flawed. Not a single one of them however, knew how to help or how the facility worked. However when you look deeper into the situation, you will find that the officers in the facility failed to complete their rounds, or “checks” on Ms. Bland. They were doing all of their rounds on paper and failed to do hers. The accountability and transparency of these rounds were all obfuscated. I knew this was a problem the right incentives and technology could aid in. I’m not going to write here and say that I solved inmate suicides and all the mental health and process behind them, I’m fully aware technology alone is not going to do this. In this case however, the technology I was able to create and sell to agencies just like this one fixed one of the first foundational problems in these facilities — accountability and transparency that the facility was properly doing rounds and checks.

There are thousands of examples like this, and you can read more in the links below, but to summarize: government, politics, and everything you complain about are all fixable. Government is just another market and has endless press and misunderstanding of what is actually going on behind the scenes. It just takes the right incentives, the right people, and an understanding of how this market works to bring innovation and change it.

Being in Silicon Valley it is very rare to find someone working in government entrepreneurship. Whether govtech, government contracting, civic tech, smart cities, whatever you want to call it. It’s a pretty empty field. We have one VC focused on it (shoutout Govtech Fund) and very few entrepreneurs even knowing what it is or worse — shunning it. And what happens with a sector is void of some of our smartest entrepreneurs and engineers? Well you end up with the most boring and unimpactful “technology” companies making monopolies in the space. The same 20 and 30 year old technology and processes are being packaged up and resold to your city, state, and federal government over and over again.

Why though? State, local, and federal governments have literally trillions of dollars going to government contractors for critical functions of society. Just the federal government spent over 500 billion dollars towards unclassified contractors last year.

Maybe it is because politics have shunned working with the government, maybe because its confusing to get into the space. My guess though is it hasn’t been flashy and cool. Which is baffling. What’s cooler than impacting the economic process of a new policy, building a new technology to help public servants in your city, fixing criminal justice, healthcare, and the hundreds of other issues being talked about. Personally I’d love futuristic transportation, real smart cities, and streamlined government than another app to click on ads. There are real incentive changes, innovations, and profit to be made by figuring this out.

This is real social impact.

So maybe in the last 5 minutes I’ve changed your mind about government contracting and the innovations and impact possible. Doubtful. So please go listen to my good friend Jasmine’s podcast Rebuilding Government about the stories of those doing it, or read more of my writings and emails on this space at Up In Gov.

Maybe then, after a day, a week, or a year you will stop thinking about a new way to make us click more ads and help innovate the backbone of society.

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