Honored to be here.I have developed a love of local government and a love of great cities, and it’s very special to be welcomed into your city, to go behind the scenes, to spend a few days with you all here.What I want to do today is convince you of something I hope you already believe Easy job, huh.
That there has never been a better time to work in local gov and never been a better PLACE. You have an amazing culture and a huge opportunity to really lead the nation in best practice and innovation.But There are a lot of reasons this might sound preposterous
Tax revenues down, support from the feds down, Budgets cut
Cities in my state keep going bankrupt because the numbers don’t add upAnd all the while the needs are going up…Citizens need more help just when we have less, but also Expectations are higher too when it comes to technology . Tech is supposed to make our lives easier but…
but now the chanels of communication proliferate, the
Lots of people have one of these in their pockets, and they’re used to a certain level of convenience and ease of use and they want that in their government too.Many city govts are running on decades old technology but they’re expected to be real-time, multi-directional information brokersSo all that should add up to a bleak picture and cities should be in miserable shape. But they’re not
They’re like the bumble bee that shouldn’t be able to fly, but flies pretty just fine, thank you very much.
People believe in local government And there’s a renaissance in l
NAC: People trying interesting things, thinking about how cities might work better, experimenting with new technology and with old fashioned community building… and all that adds up to a time of great innovation and change that is really exciting to me.
The numbers don’t add upWe’re used to this kind of math, you know what goes in on one side, and what comes out the other side.But we’re living in a world where the math can be very surprising. Remember wikipedia?
Who uses Wikipedia here? Remember about 5 or 6 years ago, when there were all these questions about it? Its done by amateurs, there’s no management, no coordination, it must be frivolous, it must be inaccurate. Turns out its incredibly accurate and timely and useful, and among the amazing reasons it works so well is something that Clay Shirky described
Clay described how if you took even one one thousandth of the time spent globally watching TV, and turned that energy into editing Wikipedia articles, you’d have something like 100 wikipedias. Turns out the certain interfaces on the Internet are really good at coordinating small piece of things, tiny microactions, and turning them into something meaningful. The value of people’s spare time and the value of the coordinating function of a wiki were not appreciated, were undervalued, which is why it took us all by surprise. So what is at play here that we don’t understand that’s causing a renaissance in city government?
And more importantly, what are the resources we still don’t understand well that are going to drive even greater change in cities? So what are these undervalued resources? Well the first one should not surprise you but it surprised me when I first started CfA. The most undervalued resource in this equation is the nation’s public servants.
When I started Code for America, I knew our public sector needed help catching up with the dizzying pace of technology of modern life. What I didn’t know is how innovative, dedicated, and caring the people who work in government are. To the extent that there are systems in govt that hold us back, the people in govt are all the more amazing for what they get done, often in spite of those systems. They know how to get stuff done in an environment that sometimes makes it hard. And if anyone knows what needs changing in govt, it’s public servants. No attempt to change government will work without you, because you know how it works, how it doesn’t work, and you care about serving the public. My friend Clay Johnson says there may be a vast LW and RW conspiracy, but none of that matters if you have
And that by the way, is what the network of leaders in city government, at the top, middle and bottom of the org chart, are creating. I’ll talk about that later.So public servants are critical to this equation, and their sometimes hidden value is a big part of driving this surprising math, but what’s also been hidden, but becoming more visible, is the real value of citizens.
When I say citizens, I don’t mean legal citizenship as in documentation. I mean actual real people who identify as citizens. Who have a deeper understanding of what it means to be a citizen, including not only the rights, but the responsibilities of citizenship. And part of our job in the public sector is to draw that out, and nurture it, and leverage it towards making our cities work better.
Theresa tells me that many of you have seen the video of a talk I gave a TED, so I’ll tell this story very briefly. But we had this experiment last year with a team of Code for America fellows in the City of Boston that was driven by a snow emergency, when they realized that the fire hydrants were covered…
And they wrote little mobile app that lets you adopt a hydrant, agree to dig it out, you get to name it, if you don’t someone can steal it from you, got some game dynamics
And now Honoulu is using it to get people to adopt tsunami sirens, bloomington storm drains
Chicago for shoveling sidewalksThese are early signs of something. We need a lot more of them. One of my dreams is for everyone in city government to ask themselves every day, How can I encourage the people who live in this city to act like citizens? How can I make it easy for them?
Those examples were from our first year of the program, so lest you think that we stopped engaging people there, here’s an example, in a more officially coordinated setting, of citizens helping out. Detroit has a problem with blight and accurate records of the state of neighborhoods is important, and community groups want to collect the data.
But the tools are confusing and require help from tech specialists so the process takes about nine months.
The cfa fellows in Detroit created a tool called LocalData It’s a simple tool that lets you use a regular web browser to create a survey, and then you can send that survey either to a smart phone or, because only about half of the folks in the community groups they were working with had smart phones….
You can also just print out a paper version of the same survey that uses scantron technology….yes, the little circles you fill in in pencil….and the data all does in the same place, and instead of 9 months to get the survey results in a format that is actually useful to the city, you have your tabulated data, mapped even, pretty much as soon as its collected. Now this community group had scantron machines, which is why this worked, but you can easily use the smartphones that half the group have to take a picture of the filled out forms and upload the data that way,… Which brings me to the my thrid undervalued resource
Consumer technology. INgovt we’re used to needing expensive, custom built enterprise technology and while we’ll still need some big systems to run a city, there are a lot of great uses for cheap, lightweight, consumer technologies in government.
Another quick example from this year’s cohort…. Fellows were asked to help with the Philadelphia 2035 plan. This is how they ask for citizen input. But the process doesn’t allow for true representation from the community.
This is open source, and anyone can use it. You don’t have to install anything or convince anyone to give you space on a server, it’s all a browser interface just like facebook.
But the real impact of cheap technology isn’t the cost, it’s how it makes it possible to just try things, and see if they work. There aren’t a lot of guides to how to do citizen engagement right with technology yet, so we’re all just going to have to try a bunch of stuff, measure it, and see what works. Here’s a not-so-secret secret. The big companies you associate with the idea of Web 2.0, Google, Facebook, Twitter, they didn’t succeed because their founders were so crazy smart that they knew exactly what would work. They succeeded – and you might argue, changed the world – because they –and those around them-- tried a bunch of different things and followed the numbers until they found what worked, and they still do that today every single day, they are adjusting in real-time to the feedback they get from their customers.
One of my biggest wishes for the cities is that they give themselves the freedom to experiment. But if you are truly experimenting, you have to be willing –pretty often in some cases– to say “well, that didn’t work.” How often do we do that? Often, our constituents are not often supportive when we fail, though they are more supportive when we communicate our intentions to experiment and ask for their tolerance. But mostly it is our culture that tells us that failure is bad, even though we know logically that failure is a necessary precondition for learning. What would it feel like if we got props for trying something, even if it didn’t work?
The truth is we don’t often get props for trying something that doesn’t work, unless we can articulate clearly what we learned from it, and to do that you must measure. Which brings me to my fifth undervalued resources though I think that here in Louisville it is becoming highly valued and highly valuable, which is definitely something to celebrate. But before we said “well that didn’t work” we had to have said
But when we ask that question, we are really asking a whole host of other questions: How well is it working now? Compared to what? Are we meeting our constituents expectations? What are those expectations? Where’s should the bar be set? How does it work elsewhere? And we’re also asking…
Where does the process work well, and where does it break down? People think about technology being DISRUPTIVE and FAST but if we are borrowing some lessons from technology here, the real lesson is tiny increments. Evolution, not revolution. Some of the changes are bigger than others but constant feedback loops that help us optimize processes are the real secret of Siicon Valley.
Lets return to the earlier question of where’s the bar? For some questions, I think the issue of citizen expectation is an important one to keep in mind, but there’s also the question of how well it’s working for others… in this case other cities. We can at least know, as you do here in Louisville (and it’s quite rare btw) how your cities rates on various performance indicators compared to other cities. It delights me to see this kind of language. Specific, measurable. Actionable.
And to know your ranking you are sharing information with other cities, and this is something your mayor really values. But I want to take it a step further. You don’t want those benchmarks just to know where you stand. You also want them because when you start sharing data with other cities you start sharing processes, and you start talking about data standards, and you start hearing about other ways that other cities are approaching the problems you’re trying to solve. And then, if lots of cities are experimenting, and sometimes failing, then you have a common POOL of experiments and everyone saves themselves a lot of failures because we can learn from each other. And you can share more than just ideas. You can share applications, like the Adopta Siren. There are a lot of people who are pretty enamored of the idea of local governments, loosely connected, doing great things.
And then, if lots of cities are experimenting, and sometimes failing, then you have a common POOL of experiments and everyone saves themselves a lot of failures because we can learn from each other. And you can share more than just ideas. You can share applications, like the Adopta Siren. There are a lot of people who are pretty enamored of the idea of local governments, loosely connected, doing great things.
Benjamin Barber has a new book coming out called If Mayors Ruled the World, and Bruce Katz and the Brookings Institution has one coming out with the same message. There’s a lot of interest in this idea because people are seeing a lot of good things coming out of local governments working together in a networked way. Learning from each other and acting to make governmetn work for – and with– citizens.
There’s a final undervalued resources I want to mention, and it’s at the core of the work we do. Its interfaces. Government does so much, but sometimes it’s not visible to citizens because they’re either no interface to it, or an insufficient interface.
A final example from the Cfa Fellows: NOLA has been struggling to deal with the large number of blighted properties since Katrina, Lots of data sources, no way for citizens to know. So the fellows went to NOLA and interviewed everyone and came back and built this.
Enter and address, get back the status of the properties
Because we want to live in a city where our kids aren’t going to be breathing toxic fumes.So I’m making the case that local government is having this amazing renaissance DESPITE (or perhaps in some cases because of) the obstacles it faces, and it’s successes are suprising because we’ve undervalued a lot of resources that have a big impact.
We’ve talked about…..But I want to bring it back again to the power of public servants. ‘I think its so important that as a society that we recognize the amazing, often difficult work you do,.
As citizens, it’s so important that we recognize the impact you have on our daily lives and empower you to try things and innovate, not just to accept the status quo, that we recognize that it may not be perfect along the way. As citizens, we also need to remind you of the bigger picture, of the WHY of government. The power of public servants who care, who deeply care about the problems that face their communities, is unlimited.
And to celebrate your amazing work, I want to offer an idea that’s become very dear to me. That when we put aside all the problems and the complexity and the politics, government is what we do together. And we need to work together because the problems we face are complex, and sometimes scary.
And I’ve talked about technology today not because I have a great love of gadgets or I believe that technology is going to save the world –I don’t -- but because our interfaces to every system increasingly are digital. And that doesn’t mean you have to be a technologist to make this work. I’m not. But I’m not afraid of it and I just try to make it work for me, but more importantly, I to work for society. I want technology in service to the greater goals of us building the communities we want to live in.
Because the communities we’re building now, the local governments we’re building now, the society we’re building now, is the world our kids are going to have to live in. This is my kid and I hope I’m teaching her to live like a citizen. And today, as we celebrate all the amazing work you do, the innovative work, the breakthrough work, and the daily work of making a city function that deserves just as much applause as the other stuff,.
that the notion of citizenship WITHIN government will serve us well too. Because you are all citizens as well, and you are also all citizens of a community of people who care about the daily life of the people of Louisville, a remarkable city I’m honored to visit. If governemnt is what we do together, government is also we you all in this room do TOGETHER, and that’s worth celebrating! Thank you.
Celebrating Change: Presentation to Louisville Metro Government