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Governor turns on the charm
for Denver Startup Week chat

e’s funny, he’s friendly, he’s engaging and he generally makes a whole lot of sense … and he totally charmed the 400-plus tech enthusiasts who came to hear him.

How much Gov. John Hickenlooper really added to the Denver Startup Week dialog, however, will be left to the beholder to decide.

The governor, on crutches following recent hip surgery, sat down with Boulder-Denver New Tech Meetup members Thursday night as part of the week-long conclave of Colorado entrepreneurial devotees. BDNT organizer Robert Reich questioned Hickenlooper as they sat in armchairs onstage at the Paramount Theater. Billed as a “fireside chat,” a video fire blazed on a giant screen behind them.

Here’s a summary of the key topics:


To the question of why governments are typically slow-moving behemoths — the antithesis of nimble and fleet-footed startups — Hickenlooper blamed two evils: Lack of incentive and fear.

DSW-logo-latest-1In government, he said, the culture encourages employees to avoid risk. “If something goes wrong, they get hammered, if something goes right they get no credit.”

To protect workers and to diminish the fear of adverse consequences, he said, “We’ve got to convince them we’ve got their backs. We’ve got to take away the fear of risk.”

As for incentives, the governor wants to convince government workers to find new ways of doing things with less people. If we can deliver more with less people, he said, we can give out more salary raises — presumably with money saved on payroll costs.

Changing government culture can take years, he said, but there is no reason it can’t be done. He cited his administration’s war on red tape.

“We’re going after all the red tape and regulations,” he vowed. “We have a Department of Regulatory Affairs that goes out to all the businesses and industries we regulate and asks what's been holding them back.” As a result, he said, “there are 8,000 regulations that we've gotten rid of or dramatically changed.”


For Hickenlooper, government is about “creating joy.” It’s about discovering the “things that really bug people” and fixing them. Case in point: “Getting your driver’s license or your car registered.”

“We now know what it’s going to cost — and it’s not cheap — to really get to the point where you could get in and out of there in 15 minutes, every single time,” the governor said. “It’ll be — I don’t know — $80 million for the whole state? How many people would be willing to pay an extra four bucks for a driver’s license to be able to get in and out of there in 15 minutes?”

That prospect brought voluminous cheers, hollers and whistles from an audience that had evidently visited the motor vehicle department once or twice before.

Our customer, Hickenlooper said, is the taxpayer. In general, the governor believes that “customer service has decayed, atrophied.”

“Both sides of the transaction [server and customer] should be uplifted,” he said. “When we start measuring in terms of customer satisfaction, workers will be inspired when they see they are doing great job.”


“I never ran for student council,” claimed Hickenlooper, explaining that his engagement in public service was more serendipitous than calculated. So how did he end up as Mayor of Denver and Governor of Colorado?

“I just got goaded into it,” he insisted, perhaps only half joking. “But I love it. It is the most engaging, challenging thing I've ever done.”

As he prepares for his reelection campaign next year, Hickenlooper warned of the impact of negative political ads. “Don’t let the negative ads turn you off,” he said. “Stay positive. Push for thoughtful democracy."

Other gubernatorial advice: Get more people involved in public service. Get more people in business to run for office. Give them the emotional support to stay involved.


It wasn’t surprising that the question of transparency and availability of government data would come up in a roomful of tech enthusiasts. His answer? He’s for it.

The question of what policies he would push to ensure greater availability of data gave Hickenlooper the opportunity to plug one of his administration’s major initiatives — Amendment 66. The proposal, which is on the Nov. 5 election ballot, is a sweeping education reform measure that is expected to raise state income taxes by $1 billion.

“This is the greatest set of education reforms in the history of the United States,” he said. “The biggest thing [in the proposal] is putting everything we spend on public education on a website. You can track every dollar that goes to every school, every day. How much is in teachers’ salaries, how much is going into their pensions, and how much is going into the bureaucracy.”

That transparency empowers families to get involved, he said.


How will the Hickenlooper administration be seen 30 or 50 years from now? “What are the changes you think will come out of your administration?” asked Reich.

The governor answered with three wishes:

  • 1. Trying to make people believe in government. “This country won’t succeed if we can't get people to believe in government,” he said. (He also snuck in one last plug for the education reform package: “Get Amendment 66 passed so we have the number one education system in America.”)
  • 2. “We want to be the healthiest state in America.”
  • 3. “We want to be the best-run state government in the country.”

"Get those things done,” he said, “and I'll sleep.”