Startup Founder's New Job: Bring Innovation to US Government

12/03/2015 03:57 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2016

Phaedra Chrousos is a 2x startup founder who now is leading a large innovation initiative in the US government aimed to improve the public's experience with the American government.

You lead the Office of Citizen Services at the Government Services Administration (GSA). What does the Office of Citizen Services do?
Our office exists to improve the public's experience with the American government. We do this by offering services and products to federal agencies that help them become more accessible, efficient and effective when serving their constituencies. Services like 18F, which is a digital services consultancy that has worked on projects like the Department of Education's College Scorecard, and products like Data.gov and Challenge.gov, which promote open government and civic engagement. We're located at the GSA, which lies at the very heart of government operations. So the products and services that we provide have the potential to - and often do - impact all of government.

What was the idea behind this overall effort?
This office has been around for a while, but it's been supercharged recently given how important it has become to improve public-facing government services. A big catalyst for this overall sentiment in government was the troubled launch of healthcare.gov a couple of years ago. That shed light on the government's shortcomings when it comes to building out digital services and, as a result, agencies started looking for services and products to help them prevent "the next helathcare.gov". In part as a reaction to that, we were given the green light to hire more technology consultants, which we're doing at the rate of 10-20 per month, and the freedom to think about our portfolio of products completely differently from how we used to.

How are you attracting 10-20 people from the private sector per month to this effort?
Proof that it's working is our best recruiting tool. The office right now is comprised of 240 individuals. Every month we get hundreds of resumes from individuals from the private sector that can see the impact of our work, that follow our efforts as we blog about them or put our code out into the open on Github. Many people applying to work with us see this as their 'tour of duty' - these are technologists that would have never applied to more traditional tracks like the Army or Peace Corps, but feel like this is their way to serve the public.

How did you grow to be an entrepreneurial leader - anything from childhood stick out?
I was a very obedient kid; I don't think I would've made a great startup entrepreneur when I was younger. I started to develop an entrepreneurial approach to life in high school when I realized that nothing ever quite worked out as planned - and in fact it often worked out better than I had planned. So I started to embrace this idea and became pretty opportunistic in my approach to life - taking a chance on interesting opportunities as they came by, even if they were opportunities I would never have sought out myself. Looking back on my career, this is the common thread and, without it, I would have never taken a chance on the startup world.

How is what you're doing right now similar to the experience you have as a cofounder of two startups in the private sector? And what is just very different from your experience as a startup founder?
Yes and no. The fact that everyone here rallies around a common mission - that feels just like the startup world. What doesn't feel like the startup world is the fact that even though we've created this bubble around our Office, we're still part of a bigger ecosystem, that of the federal government. And while that can be supportive in many ways, it can also be restrictive in terms of how we operate. It's an obstacle course - the layout is just different from that of the private sector.

And how did your experience as a leader in startups contribute to how you lead now in the government?
Startups are an exercise in emotional intelligence. You have to lead people, you have to convince them of your mission, you've got to make them as passionate as you are. You also have to listen to your customer base and keep pivoting and realigning your product with their needs. If you can't do both of those things - lead people and listen to your customer - your startup fails. In many ways, if I can't do both of those things in my current role in government, this will also fail to be successful.

How hard is it today for innovative, fast-moving tech companies to do business with the government and how can you help these tech companies bring their products into the government?
We've figured out how to make it easy for private citizens from the technology community to come into government. What we haven't figured out yet is how to make it easy for technology companies to work with the government. Coming from the startup world, this is something I'm particularly passionate about. I often sit and listen to the needs of our government customers and I know the private sector has already solved their needs. We need a secure and effective bridge between technology companies in the private sector and the government if we're ever going to move government services forward, fast. Thankfully, most of the pieces that make up this bridge can be found at GSA - and we have the commitment of GSA Administrator, Denise Roth, to make this a priority across GSA.

How do you get the word out that this positive change is coming, so tech companies seek out doing business with the government?
We're engaging industry early, especially the startup industry which has the least exposure by far to the government. We often speak with venture capital firms, who have access to many startups, and their portfolio companies about the importance of our work and the need for new technology companies in government. We've asked a few startups to go through the current process and let us track their journey, so we can better understand where we need to start mending the process. We're asking them to partner with us to help us make this better - and welcome any other technology companies that want to join this effort too.

Listen to the full podcast interview with Phaedra Chrousos here.