When Lauren Lockwood and Emily Wright-Moore worked for the government, a digital services agency to serve their industry didn’t exist — so, they created one! This week Paul and Gina sit down with Lauren and Emily of Bloom Works to discuss the unique challenges of providing digital services within the government. Then, they share how Bloom Works aims to help people working on software in government navigate through the dense bureaucratic fog.
Emily Wright-Moore Yeah, there are a couple of good ones. And those are magical. And I like feel like I can’t understand why I’m so excited to read an RFP at those moments like, what has my life become? But also, there are some really, really bad ones. [music ramps up, plays alone, fades out]
Paul Ford Hey Gina.
Gina Trapani Hey Paul!
PF We’ve had some interesting people on the show, would you think so?
GT Absolutely. We sure have!
PF And one of the most interesting conversations I think you can have on a marketing focused enterprise podcast like this one is with people who you might think are your competitors, or who work in the same space and work with clients and do all kinds of stuff. Like we talked to Tracey Zimmerman from Robots & Pencils.
GT Yes, I love talking to other agency folks, competitors or not.
PF A) There’s enough for everybody. B) It’s the worst way to approach software building, you know, it’s just, it’s just ridiculous we would get into it doing it this way. And yet, here we all are. So Gina, who is here? Who is in the studio?
GT This studio, which is Google Meet, we have two really great guests today, I am so excited. I’m actually gonna, I’m gonna let them introduce themselves, with Emily and Lauren.
EWM Hello! My name is Emily Wright-Moore. I’m based in Asheville, North Carolina, and excited to be joining you both.
Lauren Lockwood And hi, I’m Lauren Lockwood. I’m also excited to be joining you from just outside of Philadelphia. And we’re joining from Bloom, which is the agency in question that we founded a few years ago.
PF When you founded it and when the firm started, what was your intention? What were you trying to build?
LL I think, so Emily and I were both coming out of government positions. And so I think a lot of ways Bloom was essentially what would we wish we had had when we worked in government. So partners who had been through this stuff before, who could be coaches through doing procurement a different way, or designing a service a different kind of way, so that we weren’t sort of learning everything for the first time with each project.
GT I mean, be the thing that you wish you had in the world is such a good founding vision and principle for any business, I think.
PF Sure, I’m just, that my brain immediately went like “be are really present dad!” like that’s not a business, anyway. [Gina laughs] Anyway, back it up. So what I want to know here, because you alluded to something that is vast and involves billions and billions of dollars of procurement and spending every year and you’re just like, yeah, I wish, I wish it was better. Government contracting, and like working with the government, working inside of the government, like, can you wrap that up in just a couple sentences for us? Like, why is that different? And what I’ll do is I’ll describe the Postlight process, the Postlight process, is “Hey Postlight, I saw your website. A friend of ours said you were pretty good. I’m a company, even maybe sometimes a large organization, sometimes a civic organization, or government organization. But there we’re usually kind of an outsider. I’m a company, I have a certain budget, I want to get moving. I have some q4 goals, I want you to help us build. We got to fix up this platform, import this data and get an app out into the marketplace. Can you do it?” We say yes, it’ll cost this much. Round and round we go and they say, alright, let’s get started. That’s our whole process. How would you compare the government procurement process to that?
EWM At one point, in my time in government, someone referred to security in the government as a dense fog. And I think a dense fog actually, is it appropriate way to say, what it feels like to work in a giant bureaucracy or a small bureaucracy, doesn’t actually matter the size, like when I was at the VA, it was really hard to know how to get some simple things done.
PF What would like an example of a simple thing?
EWM Accessing your computer if you get locked out, how to reset your comp.
PF Okay, so actual simple—
GT Like basic, table stakes stuff.
EWM And then additionally, like, if you wanted to procure technology, or figure out how to like, you know, use a cloud service for hosting a website. That was, that was the thing we did, and it took took a long ass time to figure out and we were the first ones who ever did it at VA. And that was monumental, but it felt like it shouldn’t have been, I think what is kind of nice about sort of Lauren’s framing of it with ‘be what you wish you had’ is having, like a partner on the outside who can help you navigate the incredible complexity that just ends up feeling like a dense fog. [Emily laughs] And help you get to a goal that feels like it should be something that you had all along. But you don’t.
PF I mean, you start where you are, right? There’s always that moment afterwards. You’re like, wow, we could have avoided all of that.
GT How does the partner cut through the fog?
EWM I mean, I think it’s part like understanding that you do have to cut through the fog and help helping with it. But I think for us, we’re both just tenacious like that, where we’ll just keep trying different angles and keep trying to figure out how to make something work, whether it feels like it should have been easier or not. Because I think that’s one of the magical things about working in government is that once you do something, I’m mixing metaphors, but you’ve got a path for it. And then you can do it more times if you if you took some notes. And so I think like finding partners, or finding other examples where they did similar things, and following that process of how something got approved, or how something made it through, can get you a long way or just like not giving up.
GT Your tenacity grows every time, with every success, you’re like, oh, we push that we got that boulder up the hill, like, give me some more boulders, like that, like this is a problem that you enjoy solving. It sounds like.
LL Exactly. And I think, you know, government’s really good with cow paths. You know, the one of the biggest hurdles, I think, that we face in a lot of people in government itself to face is that not everyone’s on the same page about whether there is fog, you know, the way things have always been done is really powerful. And to the point where doing something differently can feel, you know, you get questions whether something is legal or not to go talk to users about how they interact with a with a system. So I think, you know, first of all getting people even on the same page, that that is a thing worth doing. But then as Emily said, you know, once you do forge a path, it becomes much easier to to continue, you know, making inroads that way.
GT Right and you build that reputation of like, oh, we did, like we were successful here. So others want to bring you in and say, well, you did this before you can do this again.
PF Give us a little bit of a sense of Bloom Works’, you know, size of people, it sounds like very focused on servicing government agencies, kind of digital work you do just just so the listeners have an understanding.
EWM I think we’re about 15 people soon to be 18. We’re still pretty small. We have a big network of contractors that we work with that are like part of our extended family.
PF 18 is still a lot of people though, so it’s a lot of birthdays to remember.
GT That’s legit. Yeah.
PF 18 people. Dream client? Like who, if you could just walk in the door. Doesn’t have to be a specific agency. Or, you know, is it the DMV? Is it healthcare? Is it VA? Like, I mean, these things are so big, like, where can you drive the most change?
LL That’s a great question. I mean, I think the ideal partner is one where they are truly looking to do something differently. A lot of people will say they want to try something innovative, they want to go agile, they have all these buzzwords that they’ve collected, it is really hard to find a partner who is really willing to be surprised by what they hear from users. And so that is an ideal client like to start with. And then I think the second thing, you know, we’ve been growing in a lot of different social service areas. So whether it’s foster care, or organ donation, or, you know, SNAP and WIC programs, those have been, I think, the most exciting projects that we’ve taken on.
PF Someone comes in and is excited, they want a little innovation, they hear your real smart, they’ve got some interesting project there, they want to share with you. Like a lot of people do that this happens in our world, too. And you know, they just don’t have the the force behind them to get it done. Where can you tell if something is going to be real, that it’s not just a conversation, but an organizational change actually is going to happen, and you should be there to participate.
LL I think we look for situations where there’s buy in at multiple levels, where there is executive sponsorship in doing things differently, because that’s really where some of the power comes to move some of the mountains that are necessary in government work, you need, you know, a lot of these issues are not technology issues, a technology is going to be part of the solution. But a lot of the issues are rooted in making sure that you have the right talent in house to assess different vendors and things like that. So that involves aligning HR and talent around how you hire people and retain people, it involves making sure that the Procurement Office is understanding what a sprint is, and why it’s valuable. And so it involves a lot of alignment that is impossible without executive level sponsorship. But I think you also need to see the buy in through down to the chain to, to the people who are closest to where those issues are happening. So you know, when I worked with the City of Boston, I always talked about how you know, Patty in registry was the one who knew better than anyone else what was wrong with their services and what needed to be online. And so it’s really that buy in through the full stack.
PF Patty in registry. She’s got the knowledge. So you’ve got to, got to go all the way from the person who runs the department all the way down to to Patty.
LL Yeah, absolutely. So I think that as a starting place, we’re looking for that kind of interest in seeing things done differently. But then I think, in addition, it really helps to see some sort of demonstration of their willingness to do things differently too. So whether it’s showing through, you know, doing a different kind of procurement process or showing through in smaller ways or, or pilot ways that they’re, they’re interested in doing things differently. That also really helps because it’s much easier, of course, to say that you’re trying something new and very different to sort of get that alignment and sort of break out of that the old cow paths to figure out how things can be done differently.
GT What are the telltale signs of the person who has that executive buy in and is ready is ready and willing to do what it takes? Like how do you know like, Oh, yeah, like this. This can happen in this org and What are the what are the signs that tell you like, this just isn’t set up, right, we’re not set up for success.