Over the past several years, the civic technology movement has begun to change the relationship between governments and the public. As new models have been tested at different levels of government, many of the lessons learned along the way can also teach us a lot about the way the built environment of our cities can be designed, planned, and managed.
Earlier this year, TIME published a deep look into how the federal healthcare website, Healthcare.gov, was brought out of its infamous crashes, errors, and difficulties, and placed on a path to success. The heroes of the story are part of an ad hoc team of technology experts assembled to rescue the site from the hands of large contractors — companies who failed to deliver on their responsibilities despite being paid hundreds of millions of dollars for their work on the site.
At the end of the TIME story — which reads like an action thriller — its author, Steven Brill, concludes:
One lesson of the fall and rise of HealthCare.gov has to be that the practice of awarding high-tech, high-stakes contracts to companies whose primary skill seems to be getting those contracts rather than delivering on them has to change.
The idea of replacing large government technology purchases with contracts that favor more accountable, flexible, and modern approaches is broadly referred to as procurement reform in civic technology circles. There is no bigger champion of procurement reform than Clay Johnson, who in the wake of the botched Healthcare.gov launch wrote in the New York Times with Harper Reed that current purchasing practices:
…all but ensure that the companies that win government contracts, like the ones put out to build HealthCare.gov, are those that can navigate the regulations best, but not necessarily do the best job.
The problem of large contracts being inaccessible to smaller firms that are often more technically capable exists at all levels of government — federal, state, and local. There are good reasons for how and why this came to be: overly lenient rules surrounding procurement can lead to a host of problems such as unethical contracts or exposure of public tax dollars to risks associated with firms who have shorter track records of government contracting. But in recent years, partially due to rapid shifts in technology, this valuation of bureaucracy navigation skills over technical delivery skills has led to a series of unsuccessful projects and poorly-managed funds — Healthcare.gov being the most high-profile case study.
Unfortunately, our nation had to learn the lessons of procurement reform the hard way: by collectively experiencing the acute failure of a civic system at a massive scale. But Johnson and Reed thoughtfully distill the learnings of this failure into a broader observation:
Government should be as participatory and as interactive with its citizens as our political process is.
Democracy is made stronger by the depth and breadth of participation in the system. But you can’t contribute to a system if it directly excludes you, makes it prohibitively difficult for you to understand it, or makes it too costly to access. Instead:
Government policies should empower citizens to deliver civic value.
Following on this lesson, we have a unique opportunity to apply the lessons and principles of procurement reform to the built environment of our cities.
Capability, Desire, Agency
In the past 10 years, three shifts have occurred in parallel in the worlds of civic technology and urban design.
(1) More people have the capability to work with government.
The technical barriers to entry to the two fields have dramatically lowered. Modern development frameworks make it much easier for small teams to build high-quality software, apps, websites, and services accessible to large numbers of people. In urban design, access to production and fabrication tools and the skills to use them has similarly become more democratized, and it is much easier to share great designs and lessons across the world.
(2) More people have the desire to work with government.
Interest in the two fields has rapidly increased — providing a much more robust supply of projects, companies, and contractors. As the technical barriers to providing products and services at a sufficient quality for the public sector have slowly eroded, the field has filled with fresh energy, people, ideas, and funding, combined with a renewed passion for making a civic contribution.
(3) Not many more people have the agency to work with government.
Unfortunately, the numbers of people and organizations who actually feel empowered to work functionally with the public sector — to build businesses around it, to invest in it, to design for it — have grown at a much slower pace. This is because the non-technical and bureaucratic barriers to entry have remained largely unchanged.
Given that more and more people and organizations are capable of and interested in working with the public sector, it is a massive missed opportunity if government fails to provide them the agency to do so.
For civic technology projects, bridging this gap means reforming the procurement process. For urban design projects:
Government can give citizens agency by reforming and reimagining the permitting process.
Awareness, Understanding, Capacity
Permits are, essentially, the procurement process for uses of public space. To put it a bit more poetically:
Permits are the keys to the city.
Procurement reform aims to reshape the process for government to work with providers of public technology services.
Permit reform can reshape the process for government to work with providers of public space design projects.
**One important distinction to make is that procurement generally involves a financial contract using public funds, while permits are a non-financial granting of permission to use a public space for a certain purpose. While in some cases public funding is coupled with a permit for a specific project, the granting of funds is a separate legal process from the granting of use permission.
Though the process of procurement and granting for public design projects could certainly use some improvement as well, that warrants a separate conversation from permit reform.**
Permitting processes, like procurement processes, were often created with good intentions. Most city permits were carefully designed to prevent injury, property damage, resident complaints, and other risks, as well as the public liability associated with any of those things — and rightly so. But they were not designed to allow for an army of proactive skilled community members and organizations to design, install, and maintain projects in public space. Simply, no such army capable of pulling this off has existed at a large scale until recently.
People who have the capability and desire to contribute to public space generally lack the agency to do so for one of three reasons:
(1) They lack awareness that it is possible for them to design and install public projects. They don’t see the city as a malleable environment that they contribute to actively.
(2) They are aware that it is possible for them to contribute, but they lack an understanding of how to do so. They don’t have the tools they need to make their ideas a reality, and the process is too difficult for them to figure out.
(3) They are aware that they can contribute, have an understanding of the process, but lack the capacity to do so. They don’t have the resources they need to deliver because of the substantial cost, time, or restrictions associated with permitting.
By focusing on addressing these shortcomings in existing processes, cities can unlock an entirely new form of creative civic engagement — giving skilled and passionate citizens the agency they need to design and build meaningful public projects in their communities.
The good news is that cities can overcome these issues, and there’s a lot they can do to start right now.
Proactive, Simple, Streamlined
For a permitting process to give people the awareness, understanding, and capacity to participate, it must be proactive, simple, and streamlined.
Being proactive in this context means not waiting for someone to apply for a permit before you invite them to create a design project. Everyone should be aware that they can create something in public space, and this means that city planning departments should function like marketing agencies designed to make permits seem cool.
Making permits simple means rethinking the experience of potential permit applicants to encourage, rather than discourage, them from applying. This includes things like paring down the length of explanatory text, writing things in plain English, and pointing people to exactly the information they need and nothing more.
Finally, making permits streamlined means going back to the drawing board on every component of the process and considering how it might be redesigned in each local context. This includes everything from the legal parameters to the cost structure to the application process to the time of approval to the forms themselves. It is a fascinating civic design challenge that cannot be solved by any one city or entity alone, but best practices can and should be shared between cities as much as possible — acknowledging that the standard for excellence will evolve over time.
Taken together, these three rules lay a strong foundation for an improved permitting process. I also expanded upon this in a May 2013 piece entitled Better Permits, Better Cities, which delved into more details of how permits might be streamlined.
Doing it Right
I want to be clear: This is not about privatizing the use or design of public space, and it is not about government “getting out of the way”.
It is about a movement to reduce the space and barriers between citizens, their communities, and their government.
Permit reform done correctly will unite the technical and bureaucratic expertise of municipal city planners with the eagerness and prerogative of residents to actively and continually contribute to their cities.
In the past few talks I’ve given on this topic, I’ve begun by mentioning how excited I am about permits. It’s usually a pretty good laugh line — but I dream of a day when it won’t be.
For much of the past year, I have had the honor of working closely with officials in the San Francisco Planning Department and Public Works Department to continue their pioneering work in fostering citizen participation in public space. Programs like Pavement to Parks and the Parklet Program have set leading examples that have inspired cities around the globe, and the highly successful SF Better Streets website even has a straightforward, comprehensive guide to the permitting process. Finally, the Market Street Prototyping Festival, a collaboration between SF Planning, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Knight Foundation, is creating a new model for how anyone can participate in the planning process in hands-on, creative ways.
The newest effort in this portfolio is the Living Innovation Zones program, a partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, which is allowing for new and exciting uses of public space. The first installation, on Market Street between 3rd and 4th Streets and designed by the Exploratorium, will be seen over seven million times per year by pedestrians alone. The project was designed, permitted, built, and installed in three months — and will be on the street for up to two years. We still have a lot to learn and a long way to go, but it is an inspiring example of what can happen when permitting is done right.
As we learned from Healthcare.gov, we should not allow navigation of regulation to be a barrier to civic participation. In the built environment as in the digital world, we should not let bureaucracy kill democracy.
Instead, we should embrace the permit as an empowerment tool.
Every person should feel the keys to the city are within their reach.
I would like to thank and acknowledge Neil Hrushowy, Shannon Spanhake, Paul Chasan, Jay Nath, Krista Canellakis, Jason Lally, Kay Cheng, Tina Chang, Mayra Madriz, Jeff Risom, Deborah Cullinan, Josette Melchor, Matt Passmore, John Bela, Hilary Hoeber, Sha Hwang, Eric Rodenbeck, Christine Outram, Richard Johnson, Ali Sant, Dan Parham, Matt Tomasulo, Mike Lydon, Xavier Leonard, George Zisiadis, Emily Wright Moore, Paul Davis, Hunter Franks, Ray Boyle, Ilana Lipsett, Chacha Sikes, Kavi Harshawat, Cyd Harrell, Emily Eisenhart, Scott Paterson, Shawn Lani and the Exploratorium team, everyone at Gray Area and Intersection for the Arts and MOCI, the entire Code for America team and community, everyone who has contributed to LIZ, MSPF, and Urban Prototyping, my grandfather Jimmy, and many others for the incredible conversations and work that inspired me to write this.
Thank you for all you do and all you have taught me.
I’ve spent the past seven years as a designer and organizer straddling the civic technology world and the urban planning/design world, applying design, art, and technology to improve cities. I currently serve as a Senior Advisor to the Market Street Prototyping Festival. Previously, I served full-time as an Innovation Fellow in the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, and Research Director at Gray Area, where I led civic initiatives like Urban Prototyping. I began my career in the Planning Group at Arup.