The Importance of Government Commitment to Civic Tech

This post was written by Erica Garaffo

Credit: HitRecord/Jetferlaffs

“Put yourself in your resident’s shoes, and have the courage to do what’s right” — Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, said while giving the keynote address at the What Works Cities Summit in April 2016. This provocative statement spoken to a room full of civic leaders, elected and not, has stayed with me. It’s empowering sentiment should be echoed through City Halls across the county: government should be responsive to the needs of our residents and government workers are in the best position to make these changes from within.

Putting oneself in residents’ shoes isn’t the tough part. The tough part is having the courage to imagine new ways of conducting the business of running a government. Using open source software or implementing joint-technology agreements with neighboring jurisdictions are examples of ways we might capitalize on recent innovations and motivate staff to have a positive impact on their community. Perhaps at one point in every public servant’s career, there is a desire to work hard for their residents. However, dismay quickly sets in once they find that the day to day operations of running the government can often be a hindrance to benefitting our residents.

Fortunately, I believe we can fix this problem. What is needed, is the courage of administrators to push for change and support innovative policies that can immediately improve service delivery and customer experience at City Hall. I have a few ideas to share regarding how we might go about enacting these changes.

First, we need to reduce paper. If the majority of paper in City Hall was replaced with an electronic document we would not only reduce the cost of printing (as cities did in Ohio and Minnesota), we would have a platform designed to reduce errors. Electronic forms collect machine readable data which can be easily ingested into databases without manual inputting of data. This means fewer errors from deciphering poor handwriting and less time keying in data by hand. Further, electronic forms can be integrated with data validation, which improves data accuracy. Having good quality data opens the door to a huge array of data analyses that can be used to improve services through data-driven decision making and performance management.

Second, we need a better way of getting technology in the hands of workers. Administrative policies outdate much of the technology available in the market and turn what should be an agile workforce into a backlog of paperwork (see point number 1 above). It is not uncommon, for example, that getting VPN requires a printed form, four wet signatures, multiple photocopies which are then filed in a binder on a shelf, and only then can IT perform the single click of a mouse action which allows someone access to their email remotely. This process is mind-boggling and archaic, and unfortunately, just one example of many standard operating procedures that are replicated every day, wasting staff time and resources.

Credit: HitRecord/NYMartian

Third, we need to attract and retain tech talent. In the capital of Silicon Valley it’s difficult to recruit top tech talent when you’re competing with Microsoft and Google. However, government has something different to offer and we should be capitalizing on these differences: work-life balance, impact to the community, and good benefits are just a few of the reasons why techies might want to quit their day job. But, we in government need to create an atmosphere where these folks will want to stay. No one in a tech startup wears a tie to work, and they certainly don’t clock in from 8–5. Government will need to reciprocate by embracing culture change and loosening the old-school mentality if it wants to retain tech talent at City Hall. Retaining talented folks also means investing in human capital: training in new software and technology is vital if we want a more agile workforce.

Lastly, we need to start putting user needs at the forefront of our efforts. Why shouldn’t a resident be able to pull a permit online and pay with a credit card while sitting in their pajamas at 3 am on a Saturday? We need to start adapting the way we govern to the ways people are used to operating in their non-government centric lives. If we want residents to interact with us, we can do more and meet them where they are: on a computer or a mobile device.

I am encouraged by the recent wave of innovation happening in City Halls across the United States, and I believe we are changing for the better. What works is a strong commitment from leaders at the top to challenge the bureaucratic norm. Even though most of the examples I provided are either cost-neutral or cost-benefit, changing culture is difficult in large organizations. The efficiency gains are undeniable, yet, it will take courage from our leaders to confront tradition and dismantle ineffective processes. Therefore, I challenge our leaders to have the courage to do right by our residents, our communities, and the public servants that try every day to make the world around them a better place.

Erica Garaffo works for the City of San José on the Data and Analytics Team, in the Office of Civic Innovation and Digital Strategy. Erica is a San José native, proud data geek and an outspoken advocate for improving City government through data analytics and smart cities technologies. Follow her on Twitter @erica_garaffo.