A growing number of people seem to be convinced that “civic innovation” is sexy.
Tech-oriented events at San Francisco City Hall, like hackathons for improving government services, have become increasingly common. App developers are gaga over the idea of revolutionizing government through software, and the concept is gaining momentum.
To borrow an analogy referenced in an essay by tech publisher Tim O’Reilly, some software purveyors are moving away from the idea of government as a vending machine: “When we don’t get what we expect, our ‘participation’ is limited to protest—essentially, shaking the vending machine.”
Instead, they’re latching onto the idea of government as an open platform that citizens can tinker with.
That’s exciting. Can it lead to a government that is more responsive to the people, as enthusiasts predict? Can we really hack away the ineffective and irresponsive parts of the public sector?
Or is some of this just hype and libertarian idealism from a cash-drenched tech sector seeking business opportunities and greater political influence?
HACK THE LAW
Sup. Mark Farrell recently proposed doing away with an outmoded and widely disregarded law disallowing bicycle storage in garages. The legislative tweak matters because it was spurred by feedback submitted through a new website, SanFranciscoCode.org.
Operated by a private nonprofit organization called the OpenGov Foundation, the website presents an interactive, online version of the city’s municipal code with an open platform where anyone can easily comb through the thicket of city laws and leave comments on specific sections, using the software as a magnifying glass.
Farrell touted the website — launched in partnership with Mayor Ed Lee’s Office of Civic Innovation last September — as a tool that could spur “a more transparent and accountable city government.”
“I see this leading to better engagement,” said Jess Montejano, Farrell’s legislative aide. Seamus Kraft, executive director of the OpenGov Foundation, has been compiling all the comments submitted via SanFranciscoCode.org, and recently sent a memo with all user feedback to each member of the Board of Supervisors.
“Our mission is to put as much public information into the public’s hands as possible,” Kraft said, “so that people can access their laws the way they deserve in 2013.”
The idea that a law would be changed instantly based on public comments is a new take on an old concept, with shades of being enamored by that shiny new thing. After all, many supervisors have a habit of turning their backs, or very obviously zoning out, during public comment sessions at weekly board meetings.
Yet anyone with an Internet connection can run with this new portal for citizen engagement. How about a reinvigorated response to San Francisco’s Sit/Lie Ordinance? A torrent of online commentary about the public nudity ban? Not everyone has the same idea about what it means to fix a broken law.
In some respects, City Hall appears to be lending itself out as a laboratory in which to test the wide-ranging theories of civic innovators. Mayor Lee has greeted the technology sector with arms wide open, and empowered the Office of Civic Innovation to foster tech-fueled government fine-tuning.
With the rise of amply funded organizations such as Code for America, droves of programmers stand at the ready, eager to chip in and do their part to help transport the public sector out of the analog ages.
A recent brigade of Code for America fellows partnered with the city’s Department Health and Human Services to create an app that automatically notifies food stamp recipients via text when they are about to be automatically dis-enrolled. The idea is to give recipients advance notice so they can take steps to renew their enrollment.
Other initiatives, such as the Department of Public Health’s release of an open data set to reveal housing inspection records, can arm citizens with useful knowledge — like empowering apartment hunters to spot a slumlord from a mile away.
The use of tech for transparency holds potential: What if each and every public record — down to every last email, calendar appointment, or police report — were instantly uploaded to a publicly accessible database, easy to locate, and fully searchable? Would that be a check against corruption?
Ron Bouganim, a San Francisco-based venture capitalist and mentor to the very Code for America teams industriously improving city government through technology, recently filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission to create GovTech. It’s a new kind of venture capital fund, specifically devoted to fostering companies looking to find their way in the “civic innovation” sector.
Bouganim laid out the dynamics driving the civic innovation trend: First, “2008-2009 was like a nuclear bomb,” he explained. “The financial crisis was a cataclysmic event. The money is not coming back, ever.”
THE NEW NORMAL?
This new normal, characterized by dramatically depleted public-sector finances, has helped make government more open to working with startups instead of trusted brands like IBM, Bouganim said, since startups can help government “do more with less.”
Bouganim also said adoption of cloud computing has changed the game. Whereas governments were initially hesitant to move their data to the cloud, the recent migration has made it possible for companies seeking government contracts to price below the “procurement threshold,” a price point that triggers a long public approval process before a purchase can go through. Now that technology has helped software developers slice through red tape, startups are flooding in, eager to land public sector contracts.
The city’s Entrepreneurship in Residence webpage (entrepreneur.sfgov.org), which markets a program rolled out by the Office of Civic Innovation, says it all. Sporting a gleaming picture of San Francisco City Hall, it bears the caption: “Develop products & services for the $142 billion public sector market.”
Bouganim wasn’t willing to say much in the way of GovTech’s plans, but he mentioned that his accelerator provides mentorship for startups that are paired with government agencies, and hinted that his initial investments would lead to “a dramatic impact on government savings.”
An underlying goal of the whole civic innovation movement, Bouganim added, “is to fundamentally change this concept that government is over there, and I am over here. We the people are the government, we’ve just lost touch with it.”
Bouganim responded to the Guardian’s call within 15 minutes, mentioning he was in London. “I wanted to get back to you so you didn’t think I was ignoring you,” he said, “because that would be awful.”
But the well-compensated public servants at the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation evidently had no such compunction. The Bay Guardian placed multiple calls to that office for this story, only to be met with radio silence.
And that’s a quandary. One cannot trumpet lofty goals of citizen engagement while habitually walling off government critics, and still expect to be taken seriously. And therein lies the rub with civic innovation: Even if technology is neutral, politics will never be so.