Idea to retire: Government is responsible for taking care of everything


Over the past 50 years, we have tried to perfect the “complain and fix” mode of government. In a city, residents complain and government scurries to respond to the complaint, fixing the immediate symptom and at times digging deeper to the root issue and fixing that. This relationship is driven by an old idea in bureaucracies that government sits in the center of communities and is responsible for taking care of potentially anything or everything. Like any co-dependent relationship, both parties benefit from this perspective, even though it is inadequate and unhealthy. So change is hard.

But the scale of the problems our communities face and the nature of many of those issues is beyond the solitary capacity of local government. This is not a question of money. A police chief friend of mine used to say that “80 percent of our calls for service don’t need a uniformed police officer, they need a neighbor.” A new dispatch center, centralized technology, and faster response times aren’t the answer here.

One of the crucial tasks facing city governments today is to help activate that neighbor and community partnership and enliven it, converting “residents“ to “citizens”, and sharing the direct responsibility for quality of life with citizens themselves. That requires loosening up our hold on the systems of information and governing. It requires citizens to acquire or deepen their capacity for effective self-governance.

For Palo Alto, that means open government. That means reinventing the public square, where citizens have an explicit stake in the outcomes in a city. It is a place where citizens can assemble and take greater responsibility for decisions, or be able to understand the actual tradeoffs in choices that government makes. That square is conceptual and virtual, but (can also be) physical. Social media and mobile information and communication play an important role in its effectiveness (and in good old fashioned service delivery). But today’s IT must abandon its insular focus and “expert” mindset and become a true two-way channel for communication, engagement, and action. It requires less paternalism and more trust in “the People”.

Strategy #1 – Kill the big bang approach to IT project delivery

Government has its fair share of large, complex projects. It has been the typical approach of agencies to build large requirements and then spend two to three years and more building the solution. This has many drawbacks:

  • Leadership and team members change, scope evolves and creeps, and too much complexity is delivered at one time, increasing the chances of project failure.
  • The needs at the time of initiation may have changed, and by the time the product goes live, a large volume of the functionality is no longer needed or does not meet contemporary needs.
  • Having everyone focused on a single go-live objective restricts innovation because at some point well into the development making major pivots become restrictive.

Rather than a big bang approach, large government projects should be split into smaller manageable releases allowing agility, on-going feedback, incremental functionality rollout, and complexity management. This approach is designed to manage impacts along the way and avoid the waterfall trap.

For example, rethink large complex traditional enterprise resource planning systems that are expensive, challenging to maintain, upgrade, and keep users trained sufficiently to be able to effectively utilize all their capacity—which means that hardly any public agency ever does.

Strategy #2 – IT needs don’t all need to be addressed by the agency:

Let’s face it, the technology needs of cities and agencies in general far outstrip available IT budgets, staff capacity, and available skillsets. If we continue to rely on our own teams and budgets, we’ll continue to disappoint our city staff and community members. There hasn’t been a more urgent time to embrace public-private partnerships or outright outsourcing to community.

What does that look like? A new generation is motivated to participate in their community and technology has become a tool of democracy. Give community members the problems, the data, and subject-matter-expertise, and let them try to solve a core problem. It’s working across the world, but it’s nascent and many agencies fear this change.

Kill the notion of exclusive problem-solving by an agency and you’ll get more capabilities more quickly, and more innovation in your community.

In Palo Alto, for example, in 2012 we launched an early civic hackathon along with local companies Innovation Endeavors and Talent House. Over 2,000 people turned out for a street closing 24-hour code festival around civic issues. It led us to follow that up with one of the largest community hackathons during the first National Day of Civic Hacking in 2013.

This orientation has generated free crowd-sourced civic and service solutions, like Dublin Ireland based Building Eye’s pilot of a mobile app with us that loads all up to date building permit data citywide by location into a GIS based application available to the public.

It has also led us to sponsor a Mobile Apps Challenge, to engage community members, including youth, in designing mobile applications that enhance civic life. Governments shouldn’t just be open to partnerships but actively incentivize them and leverage significant agency returns on relatively simple, low cost investments.

Strategy #3 – Kill control, secrets, and centralization

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that all control or protection of sensitive information and data is to be abandoned. Cybersecurity also requires an ever vigilant effort by government IT. But the default orientation in public agencies has been overly narrow and rigid. Specialization and arcane language within public agencies not only creates distance between government and the people, but reinforces silos and miscommunication within organizations. The open data movement is beginning to change that.

In Palo Alto, our city council adopted a policy of “open data by default”. Such an orientation, even before it was formalized, enabled us to be Open Gov’s first local government client in providing transparent, understandable financial data to the public on our city’s budget and finances. And we were one of Peak Democracy’s first clients with their Open City Hall application, designed to foster more civil but active online participation in local democracy. We continue to partner with them as they enhance their product and increase the range and depth of community engagement within our city.

Within our organization, fostering an environment of openness and collaboration has taken physical form. In Palo Alto, our IT Department was rechristened the Civic Technology Center. Our IT offices are open space, with an Apple-like “genius bar”, and a small conference space open to private sector technologists for meetings and collaborative mash-ups.

Strategy #4 – Forget federalism

In the same spirit of openness, partnership, and innovation, local governments around the world increasingly are turning to each other. This shift has been driven by necessity in the U.S. and I have joked that we would be more likely to call the mayor’s office in Barcelona on a tech civic innovation question than our representatives at other levels of government in the U.S.

Federalism just can’t deliver on the needs facing cities here. A global network of cities is emerging. We see this everywhere now on matters of sustainability and the “smart cities” movement. In Palo Alto, our small city has signed formal smart city partnerships with Yangpu District in Shanghai, Heidelberg, Germany, and Enschede, the Netherlands. Today, we are beginning to explore the potential for greater collaboration, shared learning, and accelerated innovation within our own global network.

Strategy #5 – Kill big government hardware

The desktop is mostly dead. Government agencies are moving to laptops and mobile devices; local servers are being replaced with the cloud, and every design plan and government technology service plan must be built around mobility. This means website redesigns for mobile devices, fiber and high speed community wi-fi, and apps.


Every shift we have mentioned here is rooted in more openness and cross boundary collaboration. A network mindset and a belief in the creative capacity and responsibility of people will build community and generate civic innovations that accelerate the effectiveness of the American experiment in self-government. Government IT has a stake in this experiment. The five strategies we have identified are essential in loosening the grip of an outdated past in government IT thinking and opening up amazing possibilities for innovation and co-creation in cities.