Written by Jason Napolitano of Design House

When we think about government, it seems to have a bad reputation.

It’s slow, old, and has a small attention span. We feel this when we do our taxes or when we have issues at the DMV. Hence, a negative mentality grows towards government because we don’t experience the same level of delight we have with everyday digital experiences such as buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks or planning a trip to Hawaii. Government doesn’t reflect that good vibe and even interferes with startup culture when great new services emerge trying to improve our lives. Just look at the “shared economy” problems with Airbnb, Uber and Lyft.

Co-creation changes the way we interact

Co-creation, a collaborative design approach, is beginning to transform our society despite these challenges. We’re now witnessing co-creative approaches going outside the discipline of design consultancies and into the public domain. We hear leaders, like President Obama, who want us to help build the first “user-centered” government. We hear success stories with digital ethnography tools like Neighborland and crowd-funding tools like Kickstarter that operate under co-creative principles. We also learn about radical collaboration happening at Stanford d.school where co-creation fuels the learning process for individuals interested in embracing design thinking. These new services have their own footprint but embrace the spirit that co-creating will result in a wider human, educational and economic benefit.

Government can use co-creation to re-invent itself

During a recent SXSW panel discussion titled “How to Disrupt Government” hosted by Cris Turner, Head of Govt. Affairs for the Americas at Dell, I’ve recently discovered how co-creation can increase its capacity in helping the public and the startup sector by aligning product with policy. It all starts by understanding government beyond our current perspective.

Today’s startup needs to know that government does want to listen to them. They value company stances on issues, policies and appreciate solutions. They especially respect when private companies align with policies that government is addressing over time. Smaller startups need to recognize that government listens. They see events in the public eye that potentially affect policy. Sometimes startups may be tempted to take on government for issues they want to win on through public support and form larger groups. This often fails and is seen as counterproductive.

So what can we do to foster a better relationship between startups and government?

How Co-Creation Can Transform How Startups Work With Government by Jason Napolitano, Designer of Design House Austin

Here are three key steps that emerged at SXSW 2016 every startup should follow.

Step 1: Engage on the front end

As a first step, involve government in your new product or service. As a private company, initiate the conversation first with policy makers before things happen, not after. This will appear proactive rather that requiring “after-the-fact approval”. Make sure you stick to challenges that unite your startup with larger dialog or issues government is facing. This puts you in good standing and shows that your teams are paying attention to relevant events. Meet face-to-face with officials instead of writing letters or emails. Be succinct with your communication. Don’t meander. Discuss solutions that take policy forward.

Step 2: Work with all stakeholder and policy makers

Work with as many stakeholders and local policy makers as possible. Seek out common causes and issues that mean something to you both. Watch and identify government officials that are easy to talk with but also ones that are resistant. Understand their needs. Take time to reach out to them. As a startup company, join the Chamber of Commerce to show outward participation. This is a great opportunity to tap into the local community and build business integrity. Bill Flores (U.S. Representative) described joining the local Chamber of Commerce at SXSW 2016 as “punching above your weight belt” to being more fully involved and heard.

Step 3: Build your story

Build a continuous story and dialog around your startup and highlight issues you’re facing. As Bill Flores said, “drip like a faucet.” Steadily let government know what’s happening and show you’re staying current. Schedule updates and in-person meetings. When building a story, don’t model yourself after another business or fly under the radar ducking tough issues. Simply put, you won’t be able to hide for long before having to explain your decisions independently. Finally, don’t assume public opinion and campaigning will carry you to win the war on bigger policy issues that affect your business. It might help in the beginning but will harm your dialog with government in the long run.


It’s best to take these three co-creative steps iteratively as a continual cycle to build products and services that align with public policy. Today’s working relationship between government and the private sector has made strides. Let’s continue to co-create and improve these relationships as a team.


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