Fostering civic innovation in California

Alissa BlackAlissa Black joined the New America Foundation in April to lead the newly-formed California Civic Innovation Project, focused on “identifying best practices to improving service delivery, opening new channels for public voices, and bridging the state’s digital divides.”

Black previously served as government relations director at Code for America and has worked for New York City and San Francisco governments, including developing and deploying SF’s Open311 citizen reporting system.

What is the CA Civic Innovation Project and your new role in this?

I’m very excited to be leading the California Civic Innovation Project (CCIP). CCIP promotes innovations in technology, policy and practice that deepen engagement between government and communities throughout the state. Through research and information-sharing, CCIP builds communities of practice within California’s local governments and identifies best practices to improving service delivery, opening new channels for public voices, and bridging the state’s digital divides.

Healthy knowledge sharing networks, both formal and informal, are essential to the diffusion of innovation in local governments. CCIP’s research in the area will contribute to more a comprehensive understanding of how local governments can better share technology, policies, and practices. Additionally, CCIP will engage with local governments to develop an innovation process grounded in public-private collaboration and community engagement.

What are the biggest challenges in getting government to engage with citizens and how does it overcome this?

The most daunting challenge any large organization could face is culture change, and that really is the underlying barrier to governments’ deeper level of engagement with the community. Local governments operate in an environment that is heavily siloed, so much so that employees in one department do not interact with employees in other departments. The culture of operating in silos disincentivizes government employees from collaboration, both internally and with the public. There are a number of cities in California that have overcome the silo barrier and engage with their communities.

Days of Dialogue, created by former Los Angeles Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, brings together civic leaders, government officials, and the general public to engage in dialogue on issues that divide the community. Other California municipalities have been successful forming partnerships with community groups to support civic engagement. The partnerships offer the advantage of engaging a pre-existing network and tapping into the expertise and resources of local partners.

What are the best examples of innovative uses of technology with regards to enabling better citizen participation?

A few examples come to mind:

  • Open311 is one of the best examples of government innovating to not only improve access for residents, but also to create an ecosystem for developers to build mobile apps and consumers to access government data.
  • Another example that I consider innovative, simply because the technology we consider ubiquitous is often absent in government, is the use of video conferencing in Nevada County, California. The county government began offering video conferencing for service intake and court filings, saving residents time and making county services more accessible.
  • Participatory budgeting is an exciting way to involve the public in better understanding the local budgeting process, but more importantly I believe, raising public awareness of the trade-offs that need to be made when preparing a budget.

How can those interested in your work connect with you to learn more (website, social media, contact info, etc.)?

You can find out more about the California Civic Innovation Project at

I’m currently looking for policy interns so if you’re interested in learning more about the opportunity you can reach me at blacka (at) You can follow me on Twitter at @alissa007 and @NewAmericaOTI.

Listen to Black’s interview on the CAFwd Radio Show:

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh, co-founder/CEO of ProudCity and co-host of the podcast, The Government We Need. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at

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