There’s a sense of excitement in Sacramento right now. A sense that we’re not only growing up, but that each of us has the opportunity to make a difference. It wasn’t always like this. Our reputation as a government town has held us back for a long time. But the doers and dreamers are proving every single day that we can change the rules of the game.
And yet there’s a disconnect. Despite the progress happening in Sacramento, change within our civic institutions is occurring at a snail’s pace.
I’m failing. We’re all failing.
More than two years ago I launched a nonprofit startup, Public Innovation. In our first year, we started talking with people about what it would take to make the region a global leader in public sector innovation. In our second year, we published our business plan to build a civic innovation and social entrepreneurship ecosystem. That ecosystem would emerge from focusing on four areas of activity: (1) civic technology, (2) social entrepreneurship, (3) intrapraneurship, and (4) public engagement. I think we laid a solid foundation, but something was still missing.
The thing you learn as an entrepreneur is where you’re weakest. For me, it’s selling. Create value first, ask for money second. That’s always been my modus operandi. Don’t let people pay you for work that won’t actually have meaningful impact, regardless of whether that’s where the only demand exists. Selling culture change would prove to not only be impossible, but apparently this is an already crowded market. Sort of.
Not Invented Here
Here’s the deal: when you talk with change agents who are the innovators and early adopters working on the inside of organizations, they’ve burned a lot of energy hitting their own brick walls trying to do things differently. So if you’re on the outside, it doesn’t matter if you share the exact same goals; they need tools to help them execute the ideas they’ve already invented. Forget trying to help them with an outside game that they didn’t think up themselves. The myopia of working internally trumps any value that external collaboration might afford. There are egos at stake here.
At least that’s the implicit message I’ve received. Emphasis on implicit. See, when people don’t want to work with you, they won’t tell you to your face. You just have to interpret for yourself the absence of collaboration and try not to let the cynicism set-in.
Thus, there is no sense of urgency when it comes to process improvement. Even though public agencies and community organizations deal with issues that directly impact quality of life, we just accept the fact that learned helplessness is acceptable because the status quo reinforces it.
A Culture of Competition
The more things change in Sacramento, the more they stay the same. We’ve always been and will always be a government town, as long as we’re the state’s capital.
A culture of rules, hierarchy, and specialization not only dominates the public sector, but a culture of competition is pervasive. Nonprofits — who share similar goals — compete with each other to obtain scarce funding from just a few sources, resulting in duplication of effort.
In short, Sacramento has too many organizations trying to do the same thing and no way to figure out who’s doing what — much less what we’re getting for our money.
So if we can’t change the fact that we’re a government town, how might we change what it means to be a government town?
The Birth of SAC2050
Public Innovation was a nice experiment that ultimately failed to become a sustainable organization. I knew things were doomed when I published a white paper that received praise from across the country, yet fell on mostly deaf ears locally.
It turns out, however, that we now have most of the ingredients to create a much more ambitious movement.
Our Imperative to Fill Unmet Needs
The Sacramento region lacks a shared vision for accelerating quality of life improvements and a platform to track progress toward measurable goals.
We need better tools. SAC2050 seeks to be an open platform for driving this change. We believe that it’s time to publicly ask ourselves:
Where are we at? Where do we want to go? How are we going to get there?
We want to co-create the future of 21st Century governance. No more replicating best practices from other regions; instead we should be inventing best practices that other regions will want to replicate from us. The talent is here and ready to make it happen.
Our goals are as follows:
- Build a diverse coalition of people and organizations to shape the future of the Sacramento region.
- Measure quality of life and set audacious goals to improve human well-being.
- Empower our least privileged citizens with tools to create change in their communities.
- Transform the culture of Sacramento’s public and nonprofit sectors.
We’re going to spend all of 2015 just listening to each other: our stories, our aspirations, and our frustrations — to identify how each of us can make a small contribution to accomplish together we could never achieve alone.
Our mission can be summed up as follows:
We seek to disrupt the existing market for civic solutions by making them cheaper, more abundant, and built with people.
We know there’s still a gap between the way things are and the way they should be. And we can’t keep waiting for permission when so many of us are already working to improve our communities, albeit in an uncoordinated way.
CivicOS: Removing the Friction from Collaboration
We’re also working to build a civic operating system to set goals, measure progress, and show who’s doing what so that we’re not duplicating efforts. This will require a new operating model to make collaboration the new competition.
Using open data, CivicOS will provide a curated user experience on any civic topic to answer the following questions:
1. How are we doing?
2. Who’s responsible?
3. How much money are we spending?
4. Where’s the money coming from?
5. What are some current issues?
6. How can I get involved?
The topic could be public transportation, homelessness, high school graduation rates, teen pregnancy, economic development, etc. The point is that this information should be aggregated across levels of government and sectors to understand how these issues are addressed at a systems-level.
Civic Duty Cuts Both Ways
I recently served as a juror and although I could have claimed a financial hardship, I was happy to serve because it filled a void that I’ve been experiencing in my journey. Although the trial was not of great significance, I still left the courthouse everyday feeling a sense of purpose.
But I couldn’t quite explain the source of gratitude I derived from my jury duty. Just days following the trial, I received a letter from Judge Sumner that stated:
Jury service involves considerable personal sacrifice — and often frustration with our congested courts. Yet our system of justice works only because people like you are willing to accept this important responsibility of citizenship and speak for the community with the full mandate of the law. Too many of our fellow citizens are unwilling to step up to this obligation, finding any number of excuses to avoid jury service and leave the duty to others.
And then it finally hit me: I was collaborating with my government and my government was thankful for my help.
But civic duty cuts both ways. That last sentence could be reworded as:
Too many of our public servants and nonprofit leaders are unwilling to step up to this obligation, finding any number of excuses to avoid collaborating with people who want to improve their communities and preferring to instead work in isolation.
Collaboration is the new competition and our current window of opportunity won’t be open forever. Let us not lose this competition.
Learn about how you can help make Sac2050 happen at Sac2050.org.