In this podcast 2012 CfA Fellow Alicia Rouault comments on the challenges facing city governments in introducing some “Bay Area” innovation.
“While cities have the will to innovate, legacy systems are holding them back.”
– Alicia Rouault
“Deep into a three-day return to Detroit I got a phone call from my former boss in the planning department of a city government on the east coast: “Do you have the password to an account set up for our event last year?” He hadn’t set it up, and the password security question answer was “What’s my favorite restaurant?” No one had kept record of this, and if they did, it was probably on a piece of paper. Unfortunately, I hadn’t set it up either. I flashed back to my first glimpse of a paper-based City Hall. Paper property deeds. Paper maps. Paper receipts. Paper everything.
That same planning department is responsible for some of the most impactful work I was privileged enough to work on. Challenged with diminishing resources, low-income communities, and broken city processes like so many American cities: the affect a few forward-thinking, scrappy, innovative civic leaders can impart on a troubled civic ecology is something to behold.
Mind you, this same department uses Google docs, WordPress, Autocad, GIS and Adobe CS. They found a few thousand dollars hidden deep in a budget lines no one had noticed to put to good use.They had by-passed traditional processes for posting on the official city website because it was faster to do it with a free CMS. They used workarounds and hacked on existing rules to make the rules work for them. Despite savvy individuals that I’m convinced do work in city government, these leaders are faced with undeniable challenges that prove difficult to maneuver around — no matter the know-how.
Real problems lie in legacy systems. The repetitious processes that don’t connect the “task” with the “why” — combined with massive lay-offs and retirement — have brought us into a civic era that inherited systems no one knows how to run (or why they’re running them). These systems have contributed to a disastrous siloing of information and tech infrastructure we cringe at: fixed, flammable information that you can’t easily share or distribute.
Despite it all, there’s an endless supply of good intentions and ideas in City Hall. The impressive nature of the public servants who power through the system and understand what it really takes to achieve change are truly hackers, makers, and doers. The streetwise civic leaders who are best equipped to take on the challenges that affect citizens’ livelihoods, quality of life and ultimately, safety (and personhood!), take out the garbage we don’t want to touch. It is these leaders who are most paralyzed by legacy technology, rules, and customs. We hear too often this phrase: “Technology is the least of our problems. It’s the culture.”
As we attempt to introduce a little Bay Area innovation to municipal government, I’m reminded we need to think about sustainability beyond the obvious fronts: it’s not just finding a home for our apps, it’s not just working collaboratively with partner organizations, and it’s definitely not about “re-educating” City Hall. It’s recognizing some of the systems in place diminish the ability of capable actors because they weren’t created to accommodate the needs of today. We must design for the future, by designing beyond the past.