There's now an app store for governments: But will this really make them adopt new technologies faster?

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on April 18, 2014

From The News Desk

It's well-known that historically governments have trouble adopting new technologies. We need only look at the initial rollout of to see an instance where a government entity had trouble adapting to new digital landscapes. (Of course, today we see a happy update with the announcement that over 8 million people have already signed up.)

But the federal government isn't the only state entity lagging behind. Local and state governments are having trouble adopting new and more efficient technologies. That's where companies like Granicus see themselves strategically-placed: As purveyors of cloud softwares that are targeted solely for governments.

Granicus isn't a new company, mind you, it's been around now for 14 years. The startup began by providing video casting solutions for governments to keep better transparency. Then it moved toward automating documents being sent through the legislative process. Currently it has a slew of cloud-based products for government entities to use, trying to slowly nudge each one into the 21st century.

But recently the company decided to have a new offering -- one that hopes to bring in more government-oriented entrepreneurial efforts: a government app store.

According to Granicus's co-founder and CEO Tom Spengler, the point of this app store is to bring in more technical knowledge into government-oriented products. "We see a lot of people who want to develop really meaningful products," said Spengler. So if the company approves of an app (he listed to me a shortlist of requirements, the most obvious one being cloud-based), it's added to the store and the profit for each sale is split with 30 percent going to Granicus and 70 percent to the developer.

Actually getting governments to use these products is another challenge. "The government has always been a laggard [when it comes to adopting new technology]," he explained. Primarily, he says, because city and state departments are risk-averse. Sure, a new software to streamline everyday woes would help legacy bureaucratic government machines. Yet the potential cost of bugs and glitches that could ensue quite often outweighs adopting something new and easier.

Spengler says he's been able to get through this layer, primarily by "thinking about it through their perspective." Currently over 1,100 governments in North America have adopted some suite of Granicus's software offerings. This newly-deployed app store now allows those who don't have 14 years of government software-selling experience the chance to get their product known.

Quite obviously, he is not alone in the claim that governments need to find new ways to implement state of the art technologies. Abhi Nemani, the former co-executive director of the civic-oriented nonprofit Code for America, echoed this sentiment. "The way government buys technology is fundamentally broken," he told me.

The former CfA head sees programs like Granicus's and others as a step in the right direction. He pointed to companies such as the Department of Better Technology and New Amsterdam Ideas which offer similar civic-oriented software efforts, albeit with different business models.

While these programs solve current problems at local levels, Nemani still sees huge hurdles for widespread federal adoption of new technologies. In his estimation it's an issue of culture. Currently when governments try to begin new programs, it is the politicians who are part of the initial planning. Technologists quite simply aren't part of the ground floor decisions. Months later, they are asked to build softwares as an afterthought. "We should really have top-notch technologists on staff," Nemani said. "Like the army corps of engineers."

So while an app store could help technology procurement woes at a city level, it may not be enough to fix the fissure between politicians and techies. What's needed are those who understand how technology works and what needs to be done from the get-go. "It's this lack of literacy and awareness that's crippling our public institutions," he wrote to me in a follow-up email.

To be clear, Spengler doesn't see Granicus's app store fixing the giant procurement problem. In fact, he sees his softwares as focusing on the smaller fish at "the local government level and the state level." Neither does Spengler expect it to be a raving success over night. "Changing how [governments] do things will take time," he says. But this could being a new precedent in governmental procurement of technology -- or at least get new ideas into the governmental machine.

If that's indeed the case, perhaps a new trend will form bringing in those who develop these apps from the onset, instead of merely buying their softwares in an ad hoc manner. At least that's the utopia for which Nemani is praying.

[image adapted from and thinkstock by Brad Jonas for Pando]