The MTA is one of the largest transit systems in the world, and recently, Postlight helped take it digital. This week Joshua Gee, Director of Digital Customer Experience at the MTA, joins Paul and Rich to get into the nitty-gritty of updating massive government systems. From legacy platforms to procurement to getting different parts of government to talk to each other, they chat about implementing new tech platforms at the government level and why it is often so difficult.
Joshua Gee I love New York. It’s great.
Paul Ford That’s right!
JG Greatest city the world, I said as I walked by the 17 piles of trash to get here. [Rich & Paul laugh] [music ramps up, plays alone, fades out]
PF So Rich, the government.
Rich Ziade Ooooff.
PF Yeah, it’s tough one, right?
PF I got something even better. The government of Boston.
RZ Ooooff. [Paul laughs] What year is it? Is it 1865? Or is it—
PF So we have someone who’s with us today who we’ve known for a really long time.
RZ Mhm. Friend of the firm.
PF Friend of the firm, client, who worked in city government of Boston, which woof, boy, I can’t even imagine, right?
RZ I’m sure it’s fine! Great accents, yeah.
RZ Gotta ease into it.
PF Josh Gee.
JG Hi guys. Thank you so much for having me. First time, long time.
PF It’s incredibly weird to just have you on because it feels like you’ve been on, because we’ve known you for over 30,000 years at this point.
JG I’ve known you since before the pandemic so that math does make sense.
PF God, it really does.
RZ Yes. And we’ve been trying to get Josh on for about three years now. Josh, what is your formal title at the MTA?
JG Boy. So it may be changing any day now. But my formal title is the Director of Digital Customer Experience for New York City transit, but really functionally that’s been broadened to the entire MTA. And the MTA involves Long Island Railroad, Metro North New York City subways and buses and the bridge and tunnels.
RZ That’s worth sharing for the non New Yorkers listening. This is the MTA is the largest transit system in the world.
JG This hemisphere, yes, I think it might be slightly smaller than some of the ones in Asia. But it’s certainly one of the largest here, we’re one of the largest 24 hour, if not the only 24 hour one.
PF Definitely one of the oldest.
JG One of the oldest. It’s either that or Boston, which would be the oldest.
RZ Full disclosure, the MTA has been and continues to be a client of Postlight’s
JG It turns out, if you email firstname.lastname@example.org, Paul Ford will just respond.
PF Yeah, nobody ever believes it. So Josh, what do you do at the MTA? Like you build apps? What do you do?
JG So I run a small team at the MTA that is relatively new, I actually pitched for it and built it up myself over the past three years. But we run most of our customer facing apps. So the big ones, our website, my MTA, the iOS app, which we inherited from an outside firm, as well as a lot of the digital, the real time stuff you’ll see on digital screens across the MTA and a communications platform Mercury, which was built with our friends at Postlight.
RZ You know, a lot of what we talk about, and write about at Postlight is navigating people, the challenge isn’t technical. Most of the time. I mean, it often is if you’re trying to like there’s always mine crypto.
PF There’s a technical challenge, but it’s not science, it’s just putting good pieces together with good craft. And then people get involved.
JG One thing you guys talk about and are great about is so much of what we build our tools for people to do work. And we can lose sight of that in building the best tool possible when you know this is then you hand it off to someone who has to use it every day. And this is, you say this all the time Rich. This is their life, you know, you didn’t see any piece of technology. And that’s the next 10 years of their life, what they’re going to be doing.
RZ They’ve invested a ton.
PF No, at some level, the tech industry is in the business of ruining lives, like it just is.
RZ That’s the wrong way to market Postlight.
PF No and then and then Postlight comes in and we’re in the business of healing.
RZ Ohhhh, we’re healing. Okay. We got the next tagline.
JG I think this is really unique to government too. I mean, not unique, but government’s just a little bit behind the rest of industry, I think in a lot of these conversations, because I talked to a lot of people—
PF Just a tiny smidgen.
JG Less than we think, I think.
RZ Josh, you’ve been inside.
RZ You’ve been in Boston City Hall.
RZ The New York mass transit. And the MTA.
RZ The transit system for New York City. Let me ask you a question from the perspective of an outsider.
RZ Okay. I just needed to look up the county registry for my deed. And it felt like I went back in time 20 years. And using the web from 20 years ago. And then I’m using an app to order bananas. And it was just the slickest most modern three types bananas showed up. Why is government so drastically behind?
JG I can tell you why you had that bad experience. I think I will challenge a bit because I think there’s some really great things happening in many levels of government to really improve digital services in a bunch of places. But three main things, right. One is I think people often think of government, you just said it right, I went to the government to get my thing. There’s about 17 levels of government where we’re standing right now, right, and if you think those don’t work together super well. So you know, maybe that the federal government’s working too hard to improve the digital experience, but I don’t know whatever Kings County site you had to go to, right, they may not be, right?
RZ Many layers.
JG Many layers, many layers, they don’t always work together, and you know, that’s very hard to to great make a great digital experience around, right? Even if you’re have the best team in the world, you can’t control another company, right.
PF Think about how much money Google spends so that all of its code works with all of it’s—
PF Or Amazon, they spend 10s, hundreds of billions of dollars.
JG Amazon’s still kind of a mess. [Josh laughs]
PF Yeah, no that’s true. Think about AWS. Right. AWS is as good as it gets. And it still makes no sense.
JG Yeah, I put a bunch of stuff in Glacier storage the other day—
PF You’re never gonna see it again.
JG Yeah, yeah. And I don’t know what I did. I had to make a new account.
PF Nope. Never gonna see it again.
RZ Say I’m generalizing, that there’s some County search—
PF No, but I mean, that’s one of—
RZ Capabilities and I don’t know Virginia, or somewhere where they actually put the budget in and they did it right. And they had some good talented people who made it decent. But let’s face it, most DMV websites or deed search experiences was—
PF Well that’s the thing, the DMVs get better and better. It’s when you get to those slightly, the ones with hundreds of 1000s of regular users, they’re still pretty bureaucratic. But they kind of have gotten okay. But then you get into the like, yeah, that county board where they never going to get that $600,000.
RZ They’re never gonna get it. But I’ll tell you, there’s one motivator, I want to get back to your other two points. So your first point is, it’s distributed and dispersed. There’s no unified way of solving things. There’s many pieces that make up government quote, unquote.
JG Even a fairly exciting thing that the MTA just did, you couldn’t report an issue in 311 in the New York City subway system until about two weeks ago, you had to input an address because they didn’t have non address entities.
JG And so you were trying to report an issue. And this is huge around—
RZ An issue as in like?
JG There maybe, there’s one of our neighbors who needs a little extra help. And the subway system—
PF This makes sense. I have two bicycles chained outside of my house on a corner, and I tried to get them removed. It’s two addresses for one building. I put in the one with the wrong facing.
PF And they came by and they’re like, not a problem. Don’t see it.
JG Yeah, these are these are two massive entities, right? The MTA, New York City and New York City through and one is tremendous.
PF Don’t forget, 311 fans out to like 60, other services, sanitation.
RZ And to clarify for people who are wondering what 311 is, it is the like, General Service short number.
PF You literally can dial 311. But there’s also the 311 app, the website and you can download all the data. It’s kind of fascinating. Like all the noise complaints are in there.
RZ I do want to highlight one exception. There are cameras all over the city that if you blow a red light, they take a picture of your back your head, and they send a picture of the license plate. They’re like ’50 bucks, Rich!’
PF Oh yeah, anything revenue driving gets tremendous, it’s really good.
RZ And I gotta tell you, paying that $50 ticket was one of the smoothest experiences.
PF They’re so good.
RZ When capitalism seeps in, in this malform state. Revenue aligns everybody, doesn’t it?
PF Revenue creates tremendous efficiency in the city government and then that can use that money to overbuild—[Rich laughs]
RZ Right. To blow through budget.
PF Imagine that the traffic patrols PTO system probably cost $32 million.
RZ Of course, yeah.
PF And you can put in up to 25 micro-holidays, like, so good.
RZ Okay, so first is distributed, integrating is hard, connecting.
JG And that’s something people expect and it’s just, it’s much harder to do there.
RZ It’s harder to do. What’s another? You said there were three?
JG I mean, there’s a million reasons. And each government is interesting and a little dysfunctional in its own way. But, you know, I think legacy is a really big one as well. I mean, and this is something these governments I mean, the MTA has been around 100 years. I spend a lot of my day, people saying these countdown clocks are wrong, you know, something’s up over here, where are the trains? And it’s, I mean, this, this data is coming out of systems that are 100 years old.
RZ These are old systems. Like when you say 100 years old, you’re not just speaking—
JG Yeah, I mean, MTA is unique. And like, there are pieces that are literally 100 years old, we got a machine—
JG Yeah, a lot of switches, signals, that I mean, the data that you see on your app comes from somewhere, and it comes from these platforms. I guess you can call them platforms. And, you know, we’re working a lot to try to upgrade those signals to improve that a lot of, you know, it’s not the reason it will improve performance, but it will improve the data that our customers see, but it’s a real reason. And then MTA is not unique in that right, a lot of governments had some of the very first digital systems because they really government’s just an entity that collects and organizes information more than anything else. But, you know, they had the first version of the system, but they didn’t necessarily have the need to modernize. They didn’t necessarily have a competitor coming around the border that said, if we don’t modernize our COBOL database, you know, we’re going to go out of business. So now, you know, you have difficult situations where that you know, it’s much harder to upgrade a system 60 years later than it would be five years later.
RZ You know what, what tends to unlock that is unforeseen events. Like a horrible switch accident that smashes two trains together. That’s the saying the traffic light gets put up after the accident in the intersecion.
PF A lot of attention came to unemployment systems in pandemic, ‘cuz they just crashed.
RZ And the horrible accident in Miami. And now everybody is like revisiting the inspection process for condos. And the truth is, how do you get—I mean, this is one of the classic blind spots of technology, is that nobody is writing the memo saying, I just want to take a minute here. And just thank Stan and his team for nothing happening over the last two years, because of the quality signaling systems. Nobody’s writing that memo!
JG And that was that was a great thing. You know, we I had a previous boss at transit, who used to say, you know, if we do our job perfectly, no one will ever notice. And it will be, you know, the best thing we can do is not have you not pay attention. Yes. And I think that’s true of government. But that’s makes it hard. It makes it hard to, you know, I think there’s real opportunities to change and affect the world in a way there’s not in the private sector, but like it makes makes it hard to not be like,
if I do things perfectly, it’s all just easy.
RZ Well, legacy is not exclusive to the world of government and non-profit. I mean, there are plenty of companies that modernize and address their legacy debt, so to speak, why can’t government do it?
JG It’s a great question. And I think it actually really tees up three, which is if you talk to anyone who works in government tech for long enough, either long enough, or like two drinks, and they will start talking about procurement.
PF Oh, there it is! There it is!
RZ Take a minute. There’s a lot of listeners. A lot of different corners of the world. What is procurement?
JG So I mean, procurement is just the act of buying things. Right. procurement is the equipment, software as a service. Professional services—
JG Spend money tax money, or other sources of revenue. And it should be more careful than the private sector. You know, obviously, there’s the standard sort of ideas of, you know, this taxpayer money, we want to be good stewards of it, failure, innovative, failure, prone, risky projects are not always rewarded in the same way. But a big part of this is laws. You know, a lot of the laws about procuring stuff, I mean, the laws governing—
RZ How you spend government money.
JG The laws I would use to hire Postlight are the same laws that were written back in the 20s, about how you build a school, and especially in a world where technology is at its best is iterative, slow, starting slow. You know, it’s, you can’t really do that with subway tunnels.
PF Let’s be mindful too, these laws are constructed, because the level of outright criminality was so extreme.
JG Unbelievable! Unbelievable!
PF So my wife works in construction. And it’s like, expediters are a whole new class of human being than it used to be 30 years ago. Because it was you could just bribe your way to get—
RZ They were gatekeepers. Yeah.
PF And now it’s like this very formal role. And everybody kind of, you have to work with—
RZ They’re kinda still around.
JG Oh, they’re very much still around.
RZ I mean, you need a building permit, workers permit for like, renovating your building or your kitchen or whatever.
PF It’s like, it’s like a formal process. It’s someone who’s very professional. But what I love is the concept of the expediter is basically like, you’re not gonna be able to get it done without a professional because we’ve made it so complicated and terrible. I mean, and the way that the city has solved that is like, it used to be really criminal, but now we’ve professionalized it.
RZ Yeah, it’s right. You don’t know how to fill out the application. So you need this person.
PF But we’ve had lots of people, like, if you want to work with this part of the government, you’re gonna need to pay this person $30,000, you can make a career helping people fill out forms.
JG Just you mentioned expeditors, when I left the city of Boston, you know, my main project of Boston was digitizing forums, I was moving paper forums online, which was a whole thing. But I left one of my friends who was like, you know, I worked in politics for a long time. And he was like a political—so I mean, you’re totally set up, you’re going to be an expediter now, right? [Rich laughs]
JG I mean, you know, everything back and forth. And I just the look I gave him, the color drained from my face.
PF No, because you taught the computer to expedite, right?
JG I think the ideal is like, I want it to be a phoned expeditors. Right. And I think it should be something where we, you don’t necessarily have to know who to call or how to do it. Right. And that’s where that sort of building cohesive experiences.
PF But yeah, I mean, to bring it back, right, that is how we’ve created this infrastructure, around procurement, where it is like, you’re basically working against like an anti-corruption stack that it’s like 20 levels deep.
JG And it’s also legal debt in the same way we accrue technical debt, right, some of these contracts you go to, it never seems like a bad idea to add an addendum that says, you have to certify that you have no discrimination at your company, or you have to certify that you’re not endorsing slavery in any way. It’s been 30 years. But that means that contract is dozens of those, right? And especially with technology companies—
PF Once you get one in too, like other people show up and they’re like, well, if we’re doing that we need to do this. And it’s all for the moral good. But then you end up with a 20 page form where you could have had a one page form.
JG Exactly and especially in the world of technology where we’re going, I just had a challenging conversation about this today where you know, we’re going to a world of SaaS products that are really, you know, that for you—
PF Oh, big organizations procuring SaaS, that’s not just government, that is a world large org disaster. What am I buying? What am I buying?
RZ That wave is real.
PF It’s real!
RZ That change is real, right? I mean, that is—
PF It’s hard to justify compared to like, I need to buy 500 pencils.
JG Well, it’s also hard to just because a lot of those companies don’t—
PF A lot of companies and organizations, yes.
JG They’re not expecting that deal back and forth, right? I’ve seen, you see companies—
PF Oh yeah, like the two person tech company?
JG Yeah, where they’re like, well, you just click yes on our terms of service. And input down a credit card, and it’s like, you don’t know how many meetings you’ve just described to me for me to click ‘yes’ in Terms of Service.
RZ They don’t want to be the ones who pick that tool, only to have it be something that could ruin them and ruin their jobs. Like they don’t want to be that person. They need that email trail, they just need you to say, yeah, we’re storing nothing. This is like actually an open source tool that has no personal data whatsoever. Good luck. And then they have that, they print it, they put it in a yellow folder, and they put it away just just to protect themselves and the organization they’re trying to protect as well.
PF So Josh, okay, procurement process, lot of bureaucracy, you gotta have permission, a lot of forums, a lot, a lot of legal stuff. What would a good procurement process look like?
JG That is a great question. And I think I used to work with a procurement person who, who said something, she’s like, ‘I can’t design a process. So perfect. It takes out the expertise required.’ So I mean, I think a good procurement process would be some basic checks, you know, let an expert coming to you saying I need a thing. And you know, okay, making sure you’re following that it’s not the thing is not concrete made by your cousin’s company, or some sort of basic checks. And then generally making it a lot easier. I think, I think there’s a couple of things you can do. I’m not as familiar with some of the New York things, I could make a lot of granular just things. But basically something that lets it work a little bit more like the private sector, maybe—I tend to think, flexibility, but with a lot of transparency on top might be the way to go, right? Where it’s very easy to find out everything that’s been done. But it’s also pretty relatively easy to be involved. Because all that overhead makes it hard. You can’t get those two person companies, right? You can’t that actually precludes a certain class of—I mean, Postlight’s struggled a bit at the beginning because you just hadn’t done it before.
PF There’s a lot of work that we don’t bid on. And we’ve been involved in conversations, and it’s kind of hits a natural stopping point, the archetypal story for us is at one point, we were talking to a very intense part of the United States government. And they said, maybe we could do it for like 20 grand on the credit card, or we can pay the Navy $2 million. And they went with the Navy.
JG And that happens, I’ve had those conversations, a lot of times where it’s, it’s, you have to push really hard to do either of those things, right?
PF Well, they’re really big and trench players who can just sort of be there and already have the agreements in place and have an unbelievable advantage, which they love.
JG And it’s even more so local governments, I mean, you go to these big government, go bigger governments, and you might have some more people who are interested in changing it up. But I think in smaller governments, that is changing a lot, which is great, it’s starting to trickle down to lower governments are starting to care about technology a lot more. But, you know, there are 1000s of municipal governments and you know, the county government in the middle of nowhere, Ohio, they’re looking for one mega vendor, they’re not looking, you know, the way we build technology these days, we pull a little bit off the shelf over here, I’m gonna pull up hosting over here monitoring from this this from this, like, if you’re a procurement agency, you’re like, can’t we just go to one vendor who gives us the whole thing? And like, there’s a logic like, like all truly dysfunctional things. There’s a very logical point on both sides, right?
RZ There are mega vendors that capitalize on exactly this need. They are that. They are the phone number of choice for anything.
JG They’re meeting market demand, is what they would tell you.
RZ They’re also simplifying and verticalizing their offering. This is the thing, I think worth saying out loud, a lot of buyers, a lot of people who are on the buying side of the procurement process, don’t distinguish complex software architecture from customer service. Like I need to buy both of those things. And ideally, I’ll buy them from the same place.
PF It’d be nice to get the call center on the other side.
RZ I don’t want to have another process for the call center. I just want to fold it all in.
JG Yeah, the process I mean, you know, procurement process for big pieces of software, six months to a year long, and they become these, like, couple things happen when that happens, right one, it’s just it’s so hard to do exactly what you’re saying Rich, like, I’m not gonna do two of these. Are you kidding me? But more than that, something’s moving. There’s budget behind something. There’s this. So every single thing that we are thinking about that is remotely related to this, let’s just wedge that into so it gets an infinitely more complicated.
RZ So draw me the dotted line here. I mean, legacy, I get, you’re wrangling with this thing that’s 100 years old. It’s these old hardware switches, distributed islands of bureaucracies that are trying to connect with each other, there’s many layers of government, I get. but procurement, just saying the word procurement, you’re implying something, which is this horrible process. And you can’t innovate. I mean, I get the motivations behind it, which is let’s have checks and balances for corruption and all the bad things that can happen when money exchanges hands. But the downside of that is you can’t move quickly. You can’t innovate, you can’t do things. I mean, the truth is unforeseen external events, align organizations and people very, very quickly. We have a client, that’s a large financial institution that was waffling about zoom for years. Like, they just wouldn’t let him use it because of security concerns and this and that. They had their own proprietary tools and chat clients and this and that. Pandemic hits, everybody goes home, they like signed off on Zoom in like two weeks.
JG And that can happen for sure.
RZ But can it happen?
PF You need a particular kind of leader. Maybe at the state level.
RZ I think this is the other bit, unforeseen external event aligns people, but also power just pushing through, like, get this signed, I want this on my desk by next week, aligns people.
JG I think what you see there that aligns people, but I think what you see there is that like, the government’s never going to go out of business.
RZ Is that part of the problem?
JG A little bit. But but in a way that you wouldn’t expect. Because I think what happens is I have sometimes described so you can literally walk around some of our subway stations. And we’re doing a lot right now to to unify this and clean things up. Like you can see pilot programs by previous ambitious executives. I remember vividly then then they pushed out a pilot, they got it done. And then they left and now everyone’s standing around. What do we keep this thing? What do we do?
RZ Give me an example.
JG I have a great example from my own background. I was working on forms and I was going to the city of Boston assessing department working with them.
RZ Must have been hahd!
JG Some real animals down there, real party people. But like, honestly, it was it’s one of our most popular parts of the city, because it’s how much your house costs. How much are you going to get taxed this year? Is your house going up or is it going down? A lot of big things. I need my house reassessed this.
RZ Property taxes.
JG Exactly. Huge, huge deal. Realtors putting, you know—and so I had, and I was trying to figure out, you know, I’m trying to digitize, they’ve got about 14 forms. One of them was an amazing one, it was like three pages of carbon paper, parts you filled out it was it was wonderful. And I came to realize that like, you know, actually, this is really an application that needs to be built. They’ve got three or four different applications, and then a bunch of different. And so I had an exercise, I sat everyone around a room. And I said, I’m gonna like let’s start with process at a time. And I put it on a piece of paper and I had them go through, okay, you hand it to him, and what do you do with it, you hand it to her. And I went through it. And then a woman comes up to me afterwards. Like, that was great. That was really fun. But like, you know, what are you gonna do with that? Oh, I’m gonna put together a chart. She’s like, hold on one second. She went back to her desk. And she pulled out a piece of paper and unfolded it, and it was a professionally produced, I didn’t know the name of the consulting firm. Actually, they don’t exist anymore. That was exactly that. I don’t even know what all the boxes mean that you learned in like Business School. But this had it done perfectly. And she’s like, here, would this be helpful? So I just went back to my desk. It’s like, well, I’m just going to give up on that for now. [Paul & Rich laugh] Someone comes in and tries, but if you don’t, I mean it really is going to take—this is a generational work. And I think this is one of the reasons I think it doesn’t really change until you get talent in. And I think there’s amazing opportunities. And there’s some great stuff—
RZ Is it fair to say that you’re better off going outside? Like one of the reasons people hire Postlight is because look, I found a loophole to get around the political machine to get things done.
JG I think it’s a question of how long does this thing need to work? You know, I mean, even Postlight, you know, you need the software to work—
PF Well, for Postlight, I cannot guarantee to you the post that will exist for 20 years, I could guarantee you that the state of New York will exist for 20 years.
RZ Right? That doesn’t mean you don’t do anything.
PF Well, now, Rich, hold on a minute, maybe it does, we need to consider all the possibilities. [Rich laughs]
RZ Like doing nothing as opposed to—
PF Absolutely, we should consider it. We’re gonna have a meeting to talk about doing nothing. [Josh laughs]
RZ Signed off. I got approval.
JG I think I have one of those for tomorrow morning. First thing. Yeah. I mean, I think the real answer comes through and you’re seeing this happen is that, you know, government is now just trying to understand that the digital realm is an area that matters a lot to its residents. And I think you’re seeing it’s interesting, in the face of all of these intense regulations, it’s going pretty dramatically in the opposite direction. So you’ve a lot of organizations like 18F, use digital service at the senior level. But you see, Boston, where I worked was one of the first municipal agencies, it doesn’t it doesn’t take a lot of people to build basic apps and support a website.
RZ Right. Right. Which is very confusing to government.
JG Exactly right?
PF No, they’ve been sold the 150 person team.
JG Exactly. You can come in and sell a huge team, but it’s harder to say, if you let me hire seven or eight people…
RZ Their heads explode, their heads explode. I can get a ton done with eight people.
PF See, the problem is the minute it sucks. seeds in search to get noticed. You have a bureaucracy that shows up.
JG Yeah, that is true.
PF So skunkworks is great. And then you find a fixer is like, I’ll get you the data, I’ll get you the relationships, we’ll figure that out. We’ll talk to them. You got about 16 months, yeah, after 16 months, you’re gonna ship something that works. And they’re gonna write about you in the paper, at which point it’s all over. Because it’s like, well, I don’t know, where’s our budget gonna live? I don’t know—
JG But some governments are realizing this is a thing. This is the concept is digital services more broadly is kind of what the jargon that’s used in the city at civic tech world. But it’s this idea that it’s a team that is focused on the customer’s experience first. I mean, everyone in government is not necessarily focused on, they’re focused on their tiny slice of the pie, right? Like they’re focused on just that deed that you got, they’re not focused on the deed, the parking ticket, you know, someone else is focused on the parking ticket you paid, someone else is focused on you, you know—
PF A lot government just truly is only Incidentally, world facing, like a lot of work is that we have to get this in front of the judge, right. But then there’ll be other parts that do talk to the public, like paying a ticket. And so like, you think about what the police department has to do, things have to go to the judge, they have to go, ou have to file the paperwork over here, you’ve got this kind of sense of you want to be able to search past records, and then there’s all these other community facing things. There is no one product team for all of that.
JG And but some places are trying to unify I mean, that’s what that was what and it requires serious endorsement from up high. Right? I mean, that was back in Boston. I mean, you just had my old boss on Lauren Lockwood, who was tremendously brilliant. But you know, she was successful, partly because the CIO and even the mayor, Mayor Marty Walsh, who’s not by any account, too, particularly technical guy.
PF He comes across as extreme technically—
JG He said, I know this is important. I’m going to hire someone really smart who believes in this. And then the CIO, who’s had a million CIO things to do, email, on G Suite and all that. But like, he was also like, this is a critical success metric.
RZ That’s all you need. Right? Like you don’t need them to actually know. They just need to know what’s important. And they clear the way for you. Right?
PF And I’m shocked to find out that Marty Walsh is not like a Python programmer.
JG He is the first ever commit on the city of Boston’s open source repo.
PF Is that real?
JG That is a real fact. That was the press conference.
RZ You just impressed the shit out of Paul right now.
PF No, because I know someone hit return.
JG yes, yes, he is a wonderful human being.
PF Yeah, but no one who runs the Department of Labor is a good at computers.
JG Yeah, he was not a particular programmer. But it was also like that showed that he cared, right? That was more than just like, we did.
PF That’s like a great political move. You know, him hitting return is actually what you needed.
JG Yeah. And then we and that’s, I think one of the things that’s interesting. And like, that’s one way to get around all these procurement laws. Yeah. And there’s a whole open source movement out there. And that’s I mean, City of Boston, went all the software they make is public domain. Yeah. I’m sort of hopeful that over timing, you only need so many ways to order a death certificate, and every municipality has to offer that service. So I could go to a Postlight and stand that up or a smaller team that’s using open source tools, you can start to build more of that.
PF Could governments—could we just have death certificate as a service provided by—
RZ That’s really depressing.
JG It’s a massive, it’s an important thing that government does.
RZ Of course.
PF Our death certificates? What are they? Are they county level? City level?
JG City level. County in some places.
PF Okay. So there’s 50,000 death certificate providers in the United States?
PF Okay, or some number. Why don’t we have deathcertificates.gov?
JG It’s a good question. I think that’s something we’re starting to see. You see this a lot, actually, in the UK, which is ahead of us, they really got on board with digital services first.
PF Well they have a different federal state split, right? Like the federal government doesn’t really like provide services all the way down that way.
JG But I think they’re starting to a little bit. I’ve seen that a few projects, I think, in the USGS or ATF world where they’re building infrastructure, because a lot of what they can do is, you know, if you can point it at a local person can point to the feds doing something, that tends to win a lot of conversations, because it’s like, well if the DOD is using open source software. Clearly, this is a hold right?
PF You’re more complicated than the Pentagon, right?
JG Yeah. And I think long term that may start to happen. Part of that is I mean, a lot of that comes down to the legacy even not even in the software way, but just like to do death certificates. Well, I mean, the real heroes of when we was one of the things I launched at Boston was was a death certificates order form, reprogram the real hero, there was for three years, there were just two staffers in the clerk’s office, typing it into a database, because it’s bound to 100 years of Boston death certificates were all in books. Yeah. And so I mean, I think there’s a lot of area where that back end, I mean, a lot of what we’re dealing with is data at its core, especially at the municipal level, that’s not particularly well organized. I mean, you were talking about it before. There’s like three different address systems for the city of New York, you’re trying to standardize across that. There’s a lot of real champions, subway stations have multiple numbers and IDs in our systems.
PF No, of course, so you could have deathcertificate.gov and it could be federal, and everybody could sign up and use it but now I need to enter all the deaths certificates into that system.
JG Yeah, or find a way to connect to them. There are some, I think there’s some statewide ones. There was a National Provider statewide provider that was a private sector one in Massachusetts, but they charge like 75 bucks a pop and the city charge 10.
PF I think there’s always a fantasy of like a turnkey, one size fit. But see, we our industry will run to me Amazon Web Services on its terms to use these sort of big centralized services, because it’s so much cheaper and so much easier. And we’re usually not dealing with tons and tons of legacy data.
RZ I think there’s another motivator here, which is not just making money, but surviving to make money, right? Like governments don’t go out of business. Right. And and the truth is, for—
PF It’s just rare.
RZ Well, it’s not, it’s not just rare, there are mechanisms, because there is a common understanding around the collective need around government. Whereas when you concentrate motivation to five people, versus 1000s, things move. I want to say something slightly controversial.
JG Cool. I’ll say something. I’ve got a good controversial thing lined up for after.
RZ You could probably lop off 40% of government employees with technology.
PF I wouldn’t say that’s controversial.
RZ That’s not controversial, right?
PF Maybe not lop off, maybe reassign them to climate related projects.
RZ Or whatever. That’s right. That’s right. A lot of jobs got eliminated because of technology in the commercial world, right. It happens all the time. We had put in place many years ago, the ability to apply, to have insurance agents fill out online forms. This is like early web, and the call center where the agents would call the insurance company with the info about the homeowners insurance. There were like 60 people in that office I was in, and we just put this webform up. And all of a sudden, you had 60 people who were getting no more phone calls.
PF It’s a rough one. Josh, which 40% would you fire?
JG Me first. Probably. [Paul & Rich laugh] But I think it’s really, I’ve thought a lot about with the digital. What just I mean, one thing that government has that the private sector does not have is a real, both moral, legal imperative to serve everyone. And it’s everyone. I mean, you’ve ridden the subway, it’s every kind of person with every kind. And like, they’re our neighbors, they’re our fellow residents and—
PF Special needs, disability, you know, one of the great struggles with the subway, is making it more accessible.
JG We got a lot of need there. But we’re making great progress. And, and that’s true for I mean, I think one of the great things about digitizing services is it can make it easier people like us, frankly, people listening to this podcast, probably it’s easy for us to take a morning off, go to City Hall get something right. Like that’s, that’s easy. You know, what digitizing services, it’s not for, I mean, it for us, it takes us out of the line, first of all, right, so that all of a sudden, the people who are there, yeah, spend time really giving the one on one service that a lot of the people need, whether that’s language, whether that’s and then also digitizing services for you know, I think about the mom of two who’s on a break at Dunkin Donuts, and she can pay her parking ticket on her phone in 10 minutes. I think that’s something people are starting to realize a bit more that there’s a real thing there. But I also think that’s one reason that, you know, it almost in a sense, the slowness and this is a controversial, equally controversial statement. Maybe this slowness is good. You know, we’re in a world of move, like, you know, it’s cliche to to slag off, you know, moving fast and breaking things, but like, we really don’t want that with government. Right? Because there is like, that is gonna be a big deal.
RZ I mean, if we had a sequel to this podcast, like I think they are, I think you’re making a valid point. But I don’t know if that point blanket covers, I wouldn’t just call it inefficiency. I would call it defensibility. I think a lot of the resistance you see around change, is people defending the status quo that really isn’t needed in a lot of cases. And I think you can find those efficiencies, and not compromise a lot of the needs that you’re talking about.
JG That’s true. I mean, that’s true everywhere. I mean, it’s just it’s a it’s a process that’s gonna take a long time.
PF Well, there is an element to where the tech industry tends to be like, government should work by GitHub, and everybody’s like, oh, yeah! Yeah, oh, my God, right. And then nothing happens. I say, I like the idea of serving all constituents, because all constituents should be served by their government. The velocity at which you serve them. And when you say that, I’m like, okay, then the platforms that get built should be able to quickly serve them as well. Even if someone’s at a terminal helping them—
RZ There’s still better ways to serve all those people.
PF That’s right. So I agree with you on not losing sight of nothing.
RZ I agree with that. I want to close this with a question. I feel like there’s a lot of mixed signals in this broadcast so far. Somebody who wants to, who’s technically minded product designer, Product Manager, what would you tell that person who’s thinking about working in government? Would you encourage or discourage?
JG I would absolutely encourage them to. I think it’s a tremendous place to get experience. It’s tremendous place to be able to build something that will be used by people all day long.
RZ Very satisfying, right?
JG Frankly, like, you know, if you’re a talented Product Manager, designer, engineer like and you’re thinking about, I’m gonna go to Facebook or Google. I mean, do you want to go sell sugared water all day? Or do you want to come save the world? Like this is where you can really do something that helps people.
PF That’s what Steve Jobs had to John Sculley and then later John Sculley had to go away. But anyway, yeah. [Rich laughs]
JG Like it is, I think there is this, this ethos that I can go work at Silicon Valley, and like, yeah, this is really getting into the meat of the problems that people like, you know, it’s it’s easy to say government should work like GitHub and then go do nothing, right, you can affect change in meaningful ways. These problems won’t be solved by complaining about them.
RZ Yeah, I would add one more thing, actually, it is the ultimate training ground on how to navigate people.
JG Yes, without a doubt.
PF If you can navigate humans, inside of government.
PF You also get directly experience and access to politicians. Their job is not to do anything.
RZ Yeah, that’s right. So I would say that as well.
JG And some of the organizations I mean, there’s talent that is unbelievably good. You know, I think the local governments, you know, please reach out to me if you’re interested in doing this, if you’re listening to this podcast, but you know, organizations like 18F, USDF, USDS, Country of Canada just committed to have every service they offer their residents digital by the end of next year or something.
PF It’s three services, but fine.
JG They’re large for Toronto, but like, we’ll work with some of the most talented folks.
RZ Who have committed to that mission you just described.
JG And I think there’s a lot of, there’s an increased culture of trying to be able to do it. You know, you don’t have to be there for life. Right? I know, very talented people who’ve gone for a couple of years—
[music fades in]
PF Do it for their duty. If people want to get in touch with you, what do they do?
JG Yeah, you can email me at email@example.com
PF That’s great. Thank you for coming on the program.
JG Thank you for having me. Thank you very much for riding with us.
PF Well, Rich, you know, I—
RZ I’m very proud of the work we’ve done.
PF Oh, it’s the signature project for the firm.
RZ And also it’s just I’m pro-commercial businesses and getting their money as an agency, but I’m very proud of A, as a New York City founded firm, and connected to one of the most big sprawling organizations, you know, it’s real cool work.
PF You know what the world needs? It needs a little bit of both.
RZ Needs a little bit of both.
PF That’s right.
RZ You ever hear the song I’m a little bit country, you’re a little bit rock and roll? That’s what we’re talking about. You know that song?
RZ I think that’s like Donny and Marie.
PF We don’t need that song.
RZ Okay. We don’t need that song.
PF Also we can’t afford the licensing.
RZ We can’t.
RZ Reach out. You can actually read the MTA case study at Postlight.com
PF Yeah! And if you’re a transit system, we’d love to talk to you.
RZ Yes. Have a great week, everyone.
[music ramps up, plays alone, ends]