Amazon already disappointed 218 cities when it culled the list of applicants for the tech giant’s secondary headquarters down to 20 finalists. Ultimately, of course, another 19 will fall short of the final prize. There can only be one.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this exercise reflects on how tech savvy these cities are, though. In our work we’ve crisscrossed the country, evaluating and writing about local government innovation in municipalities large and small. We’ve found hundreds of effective new programs and initiatives.
In Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County, for instance, when a family services caseworker enters a home in response to a call alleging abuse to meet with an often emotional, sometimes angry, family, she arrives with a tablet connected to information on the client’s history of involvement with the child welfare, mental health, and criminal justice systems. Back at the office, she gets alerts about critical changes in the household such as a new violent crime offense.
For corporate America, this kind of readily available, wide-ranging data to inform decisions has become business as usual. For local government, the benefits have just begun. Breathtaking developments in mobile and cloud computing, GPS, digital platforms and similar high-tech options tantalize public officials with their potential. Yet despite the many innovative programs we’ve seen, no city has found a way to mainstream these approaches fully into its day-to-day activities.
What will that take? Here are five suggestions.
Embrace the data, then make it bigger. Los Angeles’ chief data officer with support from the mayor, spent months going from department to department creating enthusiasm and connections across city agencies to share their data in the city’s new GeoHub platform. Compiling information typically held in departmental silos—from building permits to school attendance records—gives cities clearer insights when making decisions. Start bringing in data from organizations that contract with the city, “smart city” sensor data, and social-media feeds and the picture gets even sharper.
Put your city on a map. In a growing number of cities, anyone can review information from dozens of municipal departments online. Yet when it comes to open data, most cities have only tackled half the job, posting the information in formats straight from computer science class. A handful of municipalities have taken the next step to turning open data into accessible data: creating easy-to-use apps and maps for citizens and city employees. Pittsburgh’s Burgh’s Eye View, for example, is a map of data on crime, code violations and 311 service requests at the city or neighborhood level, all searchable by location and date.
Find the faster route and the better option. In New Orleans, city officials kept hearing complaints that emergency service vehicles took much longer to show up in poorer, outlying areas than downtown. When they ran the numbers and found it was true, the data team spent some time on ride-alongs and found out why: The entire fleet congregated near the district with the most hospitals and the most calls. The team created a model, using service call data, that distributed the ambulances more widely, and response time dropped by 15 percent in the far-flung districts and stayed steady anywhere else. Cities can do more with more: More data, more smart analysis and more willingness to rethink routines how it’s always been done.
Friend your community. In 2013, the City of San Francisco tried something new; it worked with Yelp to display its health inspector ratings on restaurant pages alongside visitor ratings and comments. Engaging more deeply with residents on social media is just one way cities can use technology to become more open and collaborative. Advances in communications, data sharing and mobile computing can feed powerful partnerships with outside organizations, from community nonprofits to world-class universities. In Detroit, for instance, the Kresge Foundation organized and helped fund a wide-ranging, community-driven blueprint for the city’s future, down to suggestions for landscape architecture, which now helps guide private and public investment in the Motor City.
Hire like a start-up. Cities need employees in every department who want to lead the technological revolution and even more who are willing participants. Civil service tests, obsolete hiring rules and dusty rulebooks stand in the way. These hiring rules were rightly put in place decades ago to prevent corruption and patronage. But City Hall needs to reform how it brings in new blood and give employees the tools they need to solve problems, not perform meaningless activities. Allegheny County’s human services team has started offering internships and alternative hiring avenues to entice graduates of local schools like Carnegie Mellon University, for example. And cities like Denver, San Francisco and Louisville are leading the way in reaching out to city administrators at every level to be schooled by their most data wise peers, then sent back to their home agency to spread the gospel.
These recommendations, and others in the same vein, can work wonders, but their real power comes when they’re installed together to form a new government operating system, or O/S. By harnessing today’s technologies, cities can move to what we call distributed governance, a system based on open communication, coordination and connections inside and outside of City Hall.
The new city O/S puts the user experience front and center in everything it does, making relating with its citizens a priority, like the easily digested information in the Burgh’s Eye View. It values speed of response, like the faster ambulance routes in New Orleans. And it changes its technical and administrative procedures to serve as a hub for new ideas and partners, like citizens who can learn more about their neighborhood from L.A.’s GeoHub, civil servants with more autonomy like the caseworkers in Allegheny County, and institutions like the Kresge Foundation.
When cities go from scattershot tech innovations to embracing all the digital world offers, they become more responsive, with more satisfied employees and a community that trusts its government more than ever. And they don’t even have to impress Amazon to do it.
This column is adapted in part from The New City O/S, by Stephen Goldsmith and Neil Kleiman, published by Brookings. Goldsmith is professor of government at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and Kleiman is professor of public service at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School and Center for Urban Science + Progress.