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Take A Risk, Learn, Iterate – Rinse and Repeat

Young Government Leaders (YGL) and GovLoop present the NextGen Public Service Awards for superior public service and achievement. The 4th Annual NextGen Public Service Awards will be given at the 2014 NextGen Award’s Ceremony, which will kick off the NextGen Training Summit on July 23rd in Washington, DC. We have 18 finalists in six different categories. All month long we will be introducing you to the finalists.

Who: Behrang Abadi Web Development Manager, City of Santa Monica

Achievement: NextGen Public Service Award Finalist – Innovator of the Year

“Behrang is ushering in a new standard in local government: to deliver useful information and create meaningful access to local government through interactive web technology, collaboration, and open data. Better technology has turned cities into wellsprings of information about how people interact with city services, each other, and the urban environment. Santa Monica is accumulating information while also figuring out what to do with it. Behrang has been a catalyst to use city information in policymaking, particularly with youth development. Behrang has brought numerous new technology platforms to bear, all of which improve access to information, are user-friendly, and engage the next generation in local government.” – Matthew Mornick, Assistant to the City Manager, Santa Monica. Mornick nominated Abadi for the NextGen Public Service Award in the category of Innovator of the Year.

Better technology has turned Santa Monica into a wellspring of information about how people interact with city services, each other, and the urban environment. Behrang Abadi has been a catalyst in using city information in policymaking, particularly with youth development.

“For a really long time I’ve been outspoken in how I think government systems should be established,” Abadi said. “I was told ‘you can’t do it this way, there is only one right way to implement IT, government is different than the private sector. We produce software differently, our needs are unique.’ I’ve always said no, software is software. We should be implementing technology in a manner like Silicon Valley and the rest of the world.”

Abadi and his team are taking a consumer approach to technology. “We’re focused on doing things the way that the average person expects to interact with technology, rather than saying, ‘we’re the government, we are a unique snowflake, we’re going to do things differently.’ Systems are systems. We build our systems with a consumer focus, rather than a public sector focus. At first that approach was a little scary for some folks, but ultimately, though, the proof was in the pudding. We had to get people to trust us. We worked with our customers, and we just focused on delivering value, and these quick bursts. We were able to be really adaptive to change requests.”

This change in focus is working. Santa Monica has seen a major transformation in government customer service.

“I don’t want to knock anyone else, but healthcare.gov is the best thing that could have happened to me,” said Abadi “It validates so many of the things that I think we shouldn’t do. We need to be small, be strategic, we need to be focused on delivering value, using the iterations rather than having these huge mondo requirements.

Requirements can change. In the old government model, the philosophy was whatever you could do to minimize change was the best approach. Now you can have changes. Changes are built into the schedule and budget.

Releasing data is also integral to the city’s success. “We release data a little bit differently than some other organizations,” Abadi explained. “Open data is awesome, but some organizations kind of take the vomit method approach to open data. Basically they just dump data out there. Our approach is different. We’re going for a kind of a strategic surgical type of an approach. We take our cleanest, most available, and high value datasets, and we’re going to release those. Then we are going to automate every aspect of the release, we’re building a lot of extraction and transformation scripts to remove as much of the human element as possible, to increase efficiency, and to promote the use of open data.

Automation makes a big difference for Santa Monica because “no one wants another task. So if you get machines, or scripts to do the task of preparing the data, pulling the data, and updating data on a regular basis, you set it and forget it.”

In nominating Abadi, Mornick said, “Change is difficult, it does not come easily to communities, especially change that requires people to make a conscious choice. It takes something forceful to push change forward, yet if it’s not managed with great care, good intentions can lead to a groundswell of resistance. Abadi is the consummate change agent.”

So how can others follow Abadi’s change agent leading ways? “First you have to know what you’re talking about. It’s not enough to say I want to make this change you have to understand it because ultimately you have to communicate that change to everybody, including all of the naysayers, including all of the people that say we’ve done things this way since the beginning of time. You need to really own what that change is. Second, you need to be willing to roll up your sleeves and lead by example. Change is not something that is delicate it’s something that needs to be owned. So like I said just, you’ve got to lead it by example. Third, you have to be very excited about the change. You can’t just be sending out emails and trying to drum up support via passive channels, you have to be out there. You have to be excited about it. And above all else, you have to be genuine about it. You can’t like give half-truths and expect people to buy into your vision. If you do that you’re gonna lose all credibility.”

Part of being a change agent is changing the perception of government. But Abadi said there is still a lot of work to do because, “There is this idea that we are all fat, lazy, inefficient and here to waste the public’s money. There are plenty of people behind the scenes that are so passionate about the work that they do. People think it’s a big bureaucracy and no one wants to do anything about it. That’s not true. There are plenty of people who on a day to day, hour to hour basis are trying to fight and improve on that bureaucracy.”

What is the best part of Abadi’s job? “I work with really talented developers, and they really push me and challenge me. I feel like I’m constantly getting smarter just in interacting with members of my team. I’ve got a hell of a staff, and I think that’s my favorite part of the job.”

We will be talking to all the NextGen Public Service Award finalists in the upcoming weeks.
See the full list here. And register for NextGen!

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