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Effective city government is only possible by embracing the spirit of innovation

Our government is only as strong as the bonds of trust between our institutions and citizens. An effective government must communicate its goals and actions.

By GovFresh · June 15, 2011

Our government is only as strong as the bonds of trust between our institutions and citizens. An effective government must communicate its goals and actions. In order to best serve its citizens it must embrace transparency and innovation.

Think about how much the Internet has changed your life in the past 15 years, and compare that to the pace of change in city government over the same period of time. Our smart phones have a staggering amount of computing power that enable us to do things on-the-go that few would have deemed possible just a couple years ago. In San Francisco, we are the innovation capital of the world and yet city government does not embrace innovation in the way we run the city. We have made progress, but not fast enough to keep pace with other cities in the world, let alone keep up.

None of this is rocket science. If we embrace innovation, we are going to do more, we are going to do better, and we are going to do it cheaper. Implementation of Gov 2.0 requires foresight, determination, planning and execution to get it done. Substantive results require out-of-the-box thinking and a willingness to experiment and try new things. I bootstrapped my way into the clubby male-dominated world of venture capital. I did it by focusing on practical ideas where the cutting edge meets common sense. I am an entrepreneur and I will bring a spirit of innovation with me to City Hall.

When I am mayor, I will work to change the way we look at city government. I believe government exists to serve people and deliver critical services to its citizens, but we can do more than that. Our government needs be a user-friendly platform. Platforms make services and data available in a standardized machine-readable way, so that other people can build services on top of them through API, open data, and enhancements to systems that already exist. Government should and can be a platform for its citizens. City employees should be constantly thinking of ways to make its resources more readily available to the public and deliver them in a way that allow citizens to build and create things on their own to solve challenges. We already pay to create and collect data. We will get more value out of the price we have already paid if we completely open our data and encourage people to innovate using this data.

In Boston, for example, when it snows, fire hydrants get covered and become difficult to access. The city now publishes the exact latitude and longitude of every fire hydrant in the city. It took $0 to program an application called “Adopt-A-Fire-Hydrant” so residents and small businesses can locate and take responsibility for keeping a fire hydrant clear from snow. Government doesn’t have to do anything. They did not spend a single dollar. They just made data available and a citizen with an entrepreneurial mind created a new valuable service. We don’t have snow in San Francisco, but you get the idea. I am an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs believe you can do more with less, and this application is an example of what is possible when government embraces and encourages innovation. People and businesses can solve problems on their own if we give them the right tools and empower them to get the job done.

We need to adopt a few practices that San Francisco entrepreneurial startups have pioneered to great success. One of those ideas is how to test different approaches, and improve services based on that data. This is more than just “data-driven” management. The idea here is to redefine the way we look at city services, where managers are empowered to use experimentation to test, refine, and optimize the services they provide for the community.

Take Google for example, when Google wants to test possible changes to its Ad Words system, they introduce changes for small numbers of users, measure the effects, try more alternatives, measure the effects, and so forth, until they determine the best way to operate the system. In our own MUNI bus system, we should be continually testing things like limited stop bus lines, evaluating how riders use these lines, how transit time improves, and then iterate on these tests to come up with optimal systems to best serve riders and the community.

City managers should be encouraged to try this product management and iterative approach, not only for online web-based services, but for example: the manager of the “business license service window” should be empowered (indeed, required) to experiment with different ways to handle her team’s workflow and line management techniques as to achieve goals of reducing wait times. If we treat every citizen that requires service with respect, set metrics for achievement, and require managers to use iterative testing to regularly experiment and improve, we will lead the nation with innovation.

As mayor, I’m not going to just focus on big ideas or abstract concepts. I will ground them into concrete results. I’m going to put the power of the mayor’s office behind execution. Technological possibilities for our city have to be wedded to management practices. We need a management discipline that utilizes technology. We need to set goals, make them quantifiable, measure results, do follow-up, and encourage a culture of achievement. These are all things that the Mayor’s office can take a leadership role in. All the technology in the world won’t make a difference if the bureaucracy resists. Technology has to be part of our culture of management, and that starts at the top with the Mayor’s office.