In 2012, Zac Bookman MPA 2007 was serving as an advisor on the International Security Assistance Forces’ Anti-Corruption Task Force, living in a shipping container in Kabul, when he cofounded OpenGov. Bookman was working with U.S. Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster and regional government officials to build Afghanistan’s institutional foundations for democracy and reverse systematic corruption.
“It was an intense time,” says Bookman. “We’d work all day to help build transparent institutions, and I’d spend nights reading about the history, politics, and cultures at play. It underscored the importance of ensuring effective and accountable government at home.”
Upon returning to the United States later that year, Bookman left a promising career in law and foreign policy to focus on building OpenGov. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008–2009, three California cities had declared bankruptcy (and 12 were on the verge). Bookman and his cofounders were curious: “With taxes and other revenues still flowing, how is it possible for a city—for three cities—to go bankrupt?”
The team discovered that in addition to political, incentive, and other problems, local governments were hamstrung by antiquated and costly “green screen” technology that kept departments siloed and staffers buried in paperwork. “They were using 30-year-old systems delivered on 20 disks that cost millions of dollars,” Bookman says. The State of California was using an accounting system that ran on COBOL, a programming language popular in the 1960s.
The OpenGov team reasoned that the oldest and most important industry—government—would benefit from modern, cloud-based software built specifically for its needs. “It was a tremendous market opportunity, but also we saw a threat to the health and functioning of our communities,” says Bookman.
When the City of Cupertino, California, adopted OpenGov to streamline workflows and increase the accuracy of budget planning, officials went from being unable to answer basic questions posed by their council and residents to enabling the public to see and engage with 10 years of budget data in real time. In the process, the city also unexpectedly uncovered an $800,000 embezzlement scheme.
Over the past decade, OpenGov has grown to nearly 700 employees and a “unicorn” valuation. As one of the leading enterprise software providers to state and local governments, it offers budgeting, permitting and licensing, procurement, asset management, and financial management software to more than 1,600 cities, counties, state agencies, school districts, and special districts (including the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which uses the software to run all its building and inspectional services).
From the start, OpenGov has had an ambitious vision: to bring the cloud to government and ensure that public leaders and administrators have the best solutions to meet their needs and serve their communities.
Bookman’s blend of entrepreneurship, innovation, and public service embodies the lessons and ethos of his time at the Kennedy School. Part of the inaugural class of Zuckerman Fellows, he pursued a JD at Yale Law School and an MPA at HKS. Harvard offered exposure to campus speakers such as Jack Welch, Barack Obama, and David Petraeus and the space and inspiration to “dream and think big,” he says. “It was not just learning specific skills through courses but setting high expectations and [discovering] the art of the possible.”
Bookman’s leadership at OpenGov, along with his experience on a Fulbright fellowship studying corruption in Mexico and serving as a law clerk for a federal judge, has taught him that it is “the small, everyday interactions that can erode or build trust in government.” Thus modernizing government can help achieve a truly great possibility: It can renew trust in our democracy.
Banner image: OpenGov CEO Zachary Bookman and other members of the White House's American Technology Council deliver opening remarks in the State Dining Room of the White House on June 19, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images