There’s been an odd paradox in public opinion around government over the last few years. Distrust of government, at just about every level, is at an all-time high. Americans think their governments are broken, inert, corrupt. But, at the same time, we’re witnessing the rise of the so-called civic hacker, a growing army of deeply committed, tech-savvy city-dwellers who don't necessarily want to work for government, but who wouldn’t mind spending a Saturday afternoon benevolently coding its data.
“There’s this one side of the coin where people see just this disenchantment and negative view of government,” says Jay Nath, the Chief Innovation Officer for the city of San Francisco. “But there’s also this flip side where people actually believe that working with government, we can make a better solution and better improvements for our society.”
Behold the innumerable hackathons and unconferences, put together to develop apps for no reason other than that it’s just really hard to catch a cab in San Francisco, or to find a bus in New York City. Just last week, Code for America unveiled a new project for civic-hacking “brigades,” because there are so many of these people now that communities could benefit from corralling them just as they once did volunteer firefighters.
“There is so much capacity that our communities have, that our residents have,” Nath says, “there’s so much willingness to help work on these problems.”
Cities, though, are not inherently set up to handle all of these people, to let them into the fortress, to share resources with them and take ideas from them. And this is where Nath comes in with his curious title: Chief Innovation Officer.
There are, by our count, just two major cities in the U.S. that currently have someone sitting in this role, and they've both settled in within the past six months. Adel Ebeid stepped into the job in Philadelphia after working as the chief information officer for the state of New Jersey. Like Nath, he views his role largely as connecting city hall and all of its resources with a new generation of problem-solvers outside of it.
“We don’t want just an active hacker community that’s developing apps that aren’t really going to benefit the community,” Ebeid says. “Things need to come back and either enhance citizen engagement, enhance citizen awareness, improve digital inclusion.”
The birth of the municipal chief innovation officer job is a response to these two trends: to fundamental changes in technology that are revolutionizing citizen engagement, and to a cultural movement that is turning the data-dense inner workings of city halls into public challenges that are actually kind of a kick to solve.
“There aren’t that many of us right now,” Ebeid says, “but I can tell you we’re certainly an early testbed for what will become mainstream by 2015.”
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Barack Obama appointed the country’s first official chief information officer just after arriving in the White House in 2009. Vivek Kundra, himself a former chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, was responsible for carrying out the president’s open-data initiatives, in which pallets of raw information – on stimulus spending, government procurement, Census results – were turned over to the public on what became Data.gov. Its municipal offspring are now commonplace. But the site, and the scale of it, were novel just three years ago.
“That was kind of an 'ah ha' moment for us,” says Nath, who was at the time working as the director of innovation within San Francisco’s department of technology. “It’s something we thought would be very compelling locally, more so than at the federal level, because people interact locally and they have more of a personal relationship to local issues, whether it’s crime or restaurants.”
Federal data doesn’t offer quite the same promise for creating tangible applications to everyday life, whether that’s for improving your local commute time, reporting a neighborhood crime, or tracking your nearest garbage truck. Ebeid doesn’t think the role he has now would work even at the state level.
“You’re so many layers removed form the people who consume your services every day” in state government, he says. “It’s very difficult to try to figure out how you can be innovative in the way you deliver services. But in a large urban setting like this, there’s nothing in between me and the day-to-day citizen, student or business, small or large.”
Ebeid credits one major shift in technology over the past few years that's freed up the people who were once chief information officers to actually interact with residents. The chief information officer job traditionally involved actual infrastructure – maintaining the physical technology that houses and processes government data.
Now, though, much of that information has moved into the cloud. And this means a CIO job – whatever the acronym stands for – can focus less on infrastructure and more on innovation.
“Some cities now are realizing that what I really need is someone to help me advance digital quality of life for my city,” Ebeid says, “rather than just keep a bunch of servers warm and running in a closet.”
For Nath, this means spending his time working on the city’s “pain points,” the intractable problems like the broken taxi dispatch system, or San Francisco’s notoriously cumbersome hurdles for starting a new business. The answer to all of these problems isn’t necessarily found in technology, but digitizing paperwork is a first step in just about any municipal innovation.
“Innovation is often coupled with and seen as technology, and I fall into that trap myself very often because of my tech background,” Nath says. “But I do think that innovation is really about a new way of thinking, new approaches to old problems. It could be about how do you engage with your community better? And it may not involve technology at all.”
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Engaging the community – whether through a public-private partnership, or at a hackathon – is actually the easy part.
“What you see is an asymmetry,” Nath says. People on the outside of government are much more comfortable with the idea of collaborative problem-solving.
“On the inside, it’s a different story,” echoes Ebeid. “On the inside, you’re dealing with assembly-line processes that were developed in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a culture of ‘I’ve just got to get widgets out,’ rather than, what’s the value of what I’m doing?”
It took Nath a couple of years just to get people inside the San Francisco city government comfortable with the idea of open data.
“It generated quite a bit of fear,” he says. “In general, whenever you’re fighting the status quo – and that’s something that the mayor wanted me to do, really disrupt the status quo, change how we think and do things – there’s a natural resistance. It’s human nature, I think.”
But momentum is pushing cities in this direction, toward open-source, crowd-sourced solutions instead of top-down ones. It’s not just that the hackers are out there, clamoring for more data. At the same time cities across the country are running short on moneypeople in the community are offering up free labor, free ideas, free new ways of thinking about things.
Ebeid cites as one of his favorite projects so far something called the Freedom Rings Partnership. Philadelphia has one of the widest digital divides in the country; 41 percent of residents there don’t have access to a computer or the Internet. This public-private partnership established training at 77 public computer centers across the city. More than a hundred people have already graduated from the program – and been given their own netbook.
So where exactly is the innovation in all that?
“The innovation is that we’ve figured out what is a real pressing problem for our city,” Ebeid says, “and we came up with a public-private partnership that solved the issue in the most expedient way at the lowest unit cost possible.”
Here, he's describing innovation as a business executive might define it. And he insists that the CIO job in a city hall is really not all that different from what it entails in a Silicon Valley firm. Private-sector CIOs are focused on increasing profit, or shareholder value. CIOs in cities – all two of them, that is – are trying to figure out how to deliver better services at lower costs, and with tactics no one has ever tried before.
It just so happens, in the government context, that a lot of those ideas lie with people who don’t work in city hall at all.
“Sharing our data, we’ve been doing that for a couple of years,” Nath says. “Now it’s going deeper than just data. It’s sharing our people, it’s sharing our systems.”
Imagine how tradition-bound bureaucrats will react to that.