Transforming Cities and the Need to Create ‘Greater Capacity for Change’

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Connecting state and local government leaders

In a contributed Q&A, Anchorage’s chief innovation officer discusses the What Works Cities program and Code for America with Jennifer Pahlka, CfA’s founder and executive director.

Editor’s Note: Brendan Babb is the first chief innovation officer of the Municipality of Anchorage and leads the Innovation Team that helped launch the city’s open data portal and several Behavioral Insights projects, with the support of What Works Cities. Brendan first learned about civic tech and Code for America (CfA) in June 2012 during the inaugural Anchorage Hackathon and today he serves as co-captain of CfA’s Anchorage brigade, a volunteer group of coders who work on community software projects.

Brendan recently visited with Jennifer Pahlka, CfA’s founder and executive director and an adviser to What Works Cities. Brendan credits Jen with “making civic tech a job option.” He met with her recently at CFA’s headquarters in San Francisco. They discussed What Works Cities, the network of 85 cities using data and evidence to improve the effectiveness of local governments, including Anchorage, and talked about how cities can better attract the talent and resources they urgently need to better serve residents.

Brendan Babb (BB): What’s one thing that could be a game changer to help cities use data to make government more efficient, better allocate resources, and improve the lives of residents?

Jennifer Pahlka (JP): We’ve come so far in the past few years and What Works Cities has been at the forefront. But we have so much to do, whether it’s spreading these practices to other parts of the early-adopter cities or to the whole country. If we’re going to get there, we need much greater capacity for change, and we need to start thinking about local communities as part of that capacity. No local government has the capacity to do everything they could do for their citizens, especially in the tech and data realm. But they have people in their cities who will help. We need to connect local talent with the What Works Cities agenda.

BB: You attended the What Work Cities Summit this past spring. What were you most excited about? What made you smile?

JP: There’s so much. I love how cities like Seattle and Miami are using data to help homeless people and those with mental health issues interact with the criminal justice system. Work like this makes me believe that our country, no matter how we may feel about politics right now, is fundamentally on the right track. We do have a common set of values in this country. Nobody wants to be jailing somebody who is homeless when they could be getting them care, especially when it’s cheaper to give them care and better for everyone in that community. It is exciting to see the enormous human and fiscal impact that data is starting to have on cities.

BB: In Anchorage, after the November election, there seemed to be an increase in the number of people who were interested in getting involved in civic issues. How can cities and organizations engage with newly energized people in their communities? What have you seen at CfA since the election?

JP: We’ve seen an increase in the number of people who, like you, want to move into local government. There was frustration after the election, but we saw people move quickly from anger to action. It’s not just those people who are upset with the outcome of the presidential election; many of the people who voted for our current president were are also frustrated by government. We believe we can bring both sides together when we say, “you're right, your government doesn't always work as well as it could, but let’s get together and make it work.” Working to solve concrete problems is a great unifier. That’s what local government does. Practical solutions are the antidote to ideological divisiveness, though they must be underpinned by a common set of values.

I encourage everyone who is frustrated to lean in, step up, and lend a hand. They can do that through going into government, by getting involved with their CfA Brigade, and they can run for office themselves.

BB: I discovered CfA five years ago and have been actively involved in the years since, even now in my government role. What change have you seen in the people who worked in civic tech who are now working in government?

JP: I’ve seen that people who get a taste of working at the scale and impact that government offers become addicted. There is so much more satisfaction and meaning in this work for people who care about their communities. When we started with the first class of CfA fellows, only one person joined government. Now 60 percent work in government after their fellowship. That community is orders of magnitude larger because these people have connected with projects and people that fundamentally change how government serves the American public. And folks like you inspire and support others!

BB: As co-captain of Anchorage’s CfA brigade I’m able to see and track our impact on the city. For example, we developed SMS apps to help residents screen for benefits, find bus times, check their balance on SNAP cards, and we are working towards the development of a court appearance reminder app. From your vantage point, what does that look like at national scale?

JP: The vision here is networked localism. Brigades must do what meets the needs of their community first and foremost, but there’s so much opportunity to share ideas, projects, learnings, and organizing tactics across the groups who are doing this work in various cities. Redeployment of projects between cities will probably never be plug and play; there’s tons of variability in the circumstances. But we do see lots of cases like you described, where the app to check the balance on your SNAP benefits was adapted from a project started for San Francisco, or Code for Tulsa reusing CourtBot, which was built for Atlanta. And apps like “Adopta” are in about two dozen cities now.

But apps aren’t the only thing that Brigades and others can share across the country. There’s a wide variety of ways Brigades make municipal data useful, including data science projects that help governments make better decisions but don’t necessarily have a large citizen-facing component. Several Brigades have started using the Civic User Testing (CUT group) framework to help government understand how the intended users of a given app or service truly experience it, and what improvements might be made to truly meet the users’ needs. Brigades have also brought awareness of a variety of practices to local government, such as procurement practices like creating an Agile Blanket Purchase Agreement, pioneered by 18F, or breaking up large procurements into a user-centered, modular framework, as we helped California do with its child welfare system. In some cases, they are going beyond awareness and bringing practical advice about how to implement these practices to local government, to huge effect.

Brigades are also helping create a more tech- and data-savvy municipal workforce, both by providing (mostly informal) training to government staff, and often by feeding civic-minded technology professionals into government positions. Hack for LA and BetaNYC both hold ongoing events that increase the data literacy of a wide variety of city, county and (in NYC) borough staff through exposure to data projects and hands-on peer-to-peer help with their own data projects.

Of course, you, Brendan, are one of the many wonderful examples of tech professionals who got interested in, and visible to, government through organizing a Brigade, and now have a leadership role as chief innovation officer for Anchorage! There are dozens of others like you.

BB: How can Brigade projects scale from city to city?

JP: They do spread naturally, through personal connections, pretty well now. I think the answer to how to have that happen at national scale is simple. We need to invest in the network, the tools, the sense of community, and the capacity of each Brigade. It’s an investment with enormous possible return.

BB: My job description is to put data where people are looking, to get data moving between departments more freely and to foster a culture of innovation. One challenge I’m seeing is that governments are not encouraged to innovate as there is a lot of downside to making a mistake and getting beaten up in the media or being accused of wasting taxpayer money. It's very hard to come up with new creative things without having that criticism. How do you view the importance of culture change in government and are there tips to accelerate it?

JP: Lack of trust in government by the public is a negative spiral. The more the public sees sub-par services, the less they believe government can work as it should in 2017, and the more they want to call out anything that looks wrong. This is also how we arrived at incredibly constraining processes like modern government procurement. The thinking goes that if we make sure public servants follow a complex set of rules, and exercise as little judgment as possible, then we’ll get good and fair outcomes. That thinking is terribly flawed, but it’s one reason government is notoriously risk-averse.

It’s becoming more and more common to frame projects as pilots or experiments from which government intends to learn what works. When the UK’s Government Digital Service first launched, they ran a big banner on it that said something like “this site is in Alpha. That means we’re trying a few things out to see how they work.” It’s hard to get the support to do things like that, but increasingly, the public understands what that means and supports these experimental efforts. That’s one helpful strategy, and it works on more than websites, but it requires some courage.

Ultimately, leadership needs to provide some air cover for initiatives to try things and learn by doing, rather than plan in a vacuum for years. I learned the “risk aggregator” tactic from the leaders of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) in Boston. The Mayor specifically instructed the MONUM to take risks, so they could go to departments and say, “the Mayor wants this, and furthermore, if it succeeds, you’ll get the credit. If it fails, we’ll take the blame.” Many department heads understandably don’t feel they can take risks without conditions like these. So we have to figure out ways to create these conditions.

BB: Finally, to what do you attribute the growing adoption of digital services in cities? Where do you see it going?

JP: Cities are starting digital service teams because they need them, and they can see that they are working in other jurisdictions, from the United States Digital Service to the California Digital Service to the Asheville Digital Service. As the cost and quality of apps in the consumer tech world have improved over the past decade, municipalities have realized that the IT contracting models that used to be the only option don’t hold up well in today’s world. Having a digital service team isn’t about insourcing all the work, but it is about having a core of modern tech and design talent setting strategy, defining processes around meeting user needs, and leading contractors in a very different way than in the past. I see this trend advancing steadily, and I see part of CfA’s role as enabling this, along with many other partners. The limiting factor used to be interest from leadership; now it’s the availability of tech and design talent, though that has been growing recently.