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The enduring mythology of the whiz kid

In government, the real change makers aren’t 24-year-old male engineers parachuted in from Silicon Valley, but a diverse range of people who have worked in or around government for years, who are invested in their communities, and who simply like intractable problems.

The enduring mythology of the whiz kid
[Source Photo: Robbie/iStock]

This is the second installment in The Government Fix, a new series on redesigning how government works,  published in partnership with the nonprofit think tank New America. Read the first installment here. –Eds.

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The story of innovation, as it is typically told, is one of rule breakers, stay-up-all-nighters, people who are sharper and shinier than everyone else–whiz kids. And those whiz kids all look the same. Young. Male. Techies or policy wonks or numbers geniuses. But in reality, innovation, particularly in government, rarely relies upon a whiz kid.

Over the past seven months, our public interest technology research team at New America has interviewed 50 people working inside government innovation efforts–these are people who are bringing private sector practices like human-centered design and research into government in an attempt to make government function better for citizens–and we’ve learned that the real change makers aren’t 24-year-old male engineers parachuted in from Silicon Valley, but often a diverse range of people who have worked in or around government for years, who are invested in their communities, or who simply like intractable problems.

[Source Photo: piovesempre/iStock]

For most cities, innovation doesn’t look like autonomous vehicles or the nausea-inducing internet of things, nor should it. The parts of cities that most need innovation, and where the vast majority of the work is being done, is in the mundane. When you dig into the things that make a city function you hear words like asphalt resurfacing and code violations and permitting. While these stories don’t often make the front page (which would you rather read, a story about someone improving a form for paying parking tickets or a story about someone shooting a car into orbit?) they’re where the changes that affect everyday citizens’ lives really happen.

Most governments are still struggling with the basics. They’re using technology built during the Clinton administration, they process forms on paper, they require you to show up in person to do things because that’s what the law says or simply because that’s how they’ve always done it. They have processes in place that were designed decades ago, long before people became accustomed to interacting with everything online, long before the idea began to take hold that when government serves the people, it should do so in a way that makes people’s lives less complicated, not more. (In the private sector, this is called customer service. In government, it is often seen as something that is beside the point.)

[Source Photo: piovesempre/iStock]

When innovation does occur in city and state government, it looks small, boring, like the parts of life you don’t really want to think about. In some cases it doesn’t even look like innovation. In Syracuse, New York, as in most cities with heavy snows, road construction is a constant. The streets are frequently being torn up and repaved, sometimes because the weather has wreaked havoc on the asphalt, sometimes because a water main needs to be replaced, or because the electric company needs to do work. The different city entities that might tear up the street on any given day didn’t have any way to communicate who was doing what when, so as a result, entire sections of the city could suddenly become impassable, or the same road might get torn up multiple times.

Adria Finch [Photo: courtesy Adria Finch]
Syracuse has a small three-person innovation team, the result of a Bloomberg grant, headed up by Adria Finch, who grew up in the area and worked for Syracuse’s Business Development Council before coming to city government. The team had no money to spend on a solution, and little in the way of technical expertise, so they came up with the idea of using Google Sheets to coordinate infrastructure projects, appointing an existing city employee to manage the spreadsheet.

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When they debuted their solution, it was met with eye-rolling. “Everybody was like, ‘That’s not creative. You should have been doing this all along.'” Finch says. “Yes, we should have been coordinating and talking to one another, but we weren’t, so this was a really creative solution. We wanted an asset management system, and we couldn’t afford one. This is like part of an asset management system and it’s a great tool.”

[Source Photo: piovesempre/iStock]

In some cases, cities need a little help looking at problems from new angles–the Syracuse team all participated in a three-day training on human-centered design where they learned how to ask the right questions, develop ideas, and get to the root of a problem–and city employees are then often able to fix the things that most need fixing.

Wendy Thomas [Photo: courtesy Wendy Thomas]
In addition to the training, Syracuse had something else that many other cities making small improvements have: someone at the top who gave them permission to try something different. In Syracuse that person was the mayor, who directed the innovation team to improve Syracuse residents’ quality of life in whatever way possible. In other cities, that person at the top is the CIO or CTO. In Gainesville, Florida, City Manager Anthony Lyons has been a one-man campaign for rethinking nearly every aspect of government from the citizen perspective. “Most of government is designed for experts,” Lyons points out. “People who either have a fairly good education or can hire people to go through or get around government stuff.”

[Source Photo: piovesempre/iStock]

As a first step, Lyons worked to reorganize the planning department, as that was where the city saw a lot of angst in citizens’ daily interactions. Gainesville calls the new department the Department of Doing; it’s headed by Wendy Thomas, a lifelong city planner who had most recently worked in Bozeman, Montana. When she arrived in Gainesville, Thomas went on ride-alongs with building inspectors and noticed they were spending a lot of their time driving from one job site to another rather than inspecting. Worse, people trying to book an inspection were given the dreaded “sometime today” time period, which meant that homeowners often had to take the day off just to get their new hot water heater inspected by the city.

Thomas hit on an idea for fixing the problem while reading an article about ER doctors who provide care to rural residents through WebEx: Why not do the inspections over Skype? The city began testing out virtual inspections for specific permit types soon after, and as of this January all HVAC inspections in Gainesville are done virtually. The inspectors sit at a computer while the contractor who did the work completes the inspection via smartphone. And because there’s no travel time, citizens are able to schedule an inspection to the minute. In addition to saving the city money on gas, Thomas says the project also helped get others in the city government excited about the kinds of inspections they could do virtually. She’s been talking with the fire department about whether virtual inspections could work for some of their more routine, smaller jobs.

[Source Photo: piovesempre/iStock]

If these sound like common-sense, no-duh ideas, they are. But in government, they’re often revolutionary. Government isn’t set up for people to have a holistic view of a problem. Instead, workers typically stay in their silos, doing a prescribed job. When given the opportunity to look across and beyond, government workers are just as eager to make things better as anyone else.

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Eric Jackson [Photo: courtesy Eric Jackson]

In Asheville, North Carolina, digital services director Eric Jackson has been working to change the IT department’s reputation. “We’re not the typical IT department of no,” he says. “Our primary orientation is, ‘How can we get you what you want?'” That’s helped make other departments feel more comfortable bringing ideas to them. Last year he visited a Parks and Rec facility in the city to see if it would be a good place for a meeting he was trying to organize. Later that day, the facilities manager emailed with an idea for an app. If you’re in tech in city government, you get bombarded with a lot of bad app ideas, but in this case the parks employee had an interesting problem he was trying to solve. As with many cities, Asheville residents are deeply divided when it comes to how they access the internet. Wealthier residents typically have access to broadband and desktops. Lower income residents use their phones. When it came to signing up for sought-after parks’ department programs, people who could access the parks’ department website on a desktop got all the slots. Those on mobile were out of luck, because the mobile version of the site was barely functional. So the parks department employee wanted to create an app that would allow people to sign up or learn about programs on their phones.

The Asheville IT team didn’t have the money or staff to build lots of custom apps for every department that wanted one (nor did they think that was the right solution), but they could afford to purchase a basic platform that they could then configure for lots of different parts of the city’s services. Anything that had a schedule, or a signup, could be done via the app. The city is working on the app now, and is anticipating rolling it out to residents in early summer.

[Source Photo: piovesempre/iStock]

Asheville has a lot of things going for it when it comes to innovation, in addition to creating a culture where people feel comfortable reaching across silos. Jackson credits the city’s CIO with giving his department room to try new things and fail. And Jackson himself is passionate about serving the citizens of Asheville. He spent decades in the private sector–his last role was as a CTO at Dell–but when he looked around to see where the most exciting work with the biggest impact was happening in tech, he opted for government. As a result, when the IT department takes on a project, they first look at it from the citizen perspective: How will this project better serve the people of Asheville?

It’s not easy to make decades or centuries of bureaucracy bend to your will. The whiz kid motto of “move fast and break things,” when applied to government, often ends up doing nothing beyond frustrating civil servants and leading whiz kids to rage-quit when they discover they need three different laptops to access email for three different agencies, or that the person they want to hire won’t be approved to start work for nine months.

Instead, local governments should look internally for solutions. Mayors and city managers don’t need to spend tons of money bringing on someone with fancy ideas. They simply need to be champions of change. They need to give permission for their city’s departments to try and fail, or to talk to other departments, or to haul themselves out of their silos and take a bird’s-eye-view of the city’s services. They need to be the person who stands up and demands that their city government figure out where they’re falling short of service citizens and what can be done to fix it. Not with tons of tech. Not with drones or self-driving cars. A simple, boring solution should do it.

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