In the past couple of days I’ve had informative meetings with two high level city officials (separately) and both have progressed in a good direction until we come to a topic that has a potential legal implication for the city. At this point an idea that was moving along nicely hits what is perceived as a real barrier to implementation or change in an area of the city structure that needs improvement. As the opengov, gov2.0 and other shifts in understanding of government grow we are seeing more and more innovative, creative solutions to common problems, many of which are highlighted on the CivicCommons.org platform. These barriers that end all hope of change because of the legal nature of information release or the legal requirements to get a new method cleared seemed analogous to the barriers faced by agencies adopting new, agile, open technologies: one city takes the hit and does the grunt work to make the policy, implement the new tech and publish their journey for the world to see. Call it the Code for America effect. (On waking today I realize the CfA effect has already been claimed and is slightly different from what I’ve implied, so I’ll redub this the CivicCommons Effect, didn’t intend to steal someone else’s idea 😉 )
To my (naive) mind, this very same scenario is the death of many city innovations, changes and policy improvements:
- Great new idea for city.
- Plan for idea to be made real.
- Idea hits legal clearance or policy barrier, lawyers say too hard, not worth it.
- Idea dead.
- Change stalled, hope lost.
- Business as usual.
As I thought more about these perceived barriers I thought of the other nearby cities that have faced and solved these very same issues. And in each case it seems really clear to me that these issues present not as real barriers (hence insurmountable, undo-able, impossible) but merely as processes. And processes can be followed everywhere.
If one city attorney or county counsel decides something is risky, illegal, uncomfortable, should this be treated as a barrier with all the anticipated costs, struggle, blood, sweat and frustration as such a barrier should? What if the next city across has been through the same damn thing and come out with a working solution? To me the issue is then just a process, one to be followed, tweaked and adjusted to suit but still a process, and a process is not expensive, time consuming nor daunting.
It’s essentially applying an open source software model to government issues. I have a need, I’m stuck on something and have no budget to hire a consultant to build the fix/system for my issue. But if I can find an open sourced solution that someone else built to solve just this issue, I can just take their great work and tweak it to suit my local need, wallah (infer sexy french accent here), I now have a solution and no big capital investment.
Why should every city government treat the same issues as unique barriers? If one has pushed through a solution, why would we try to face the issue as a barrier? If we change our mode of thinking we are now viewing this issue simply as a process to follow. I’m not trying to simplify complex scenarios nor to undervalue thoughtful planning, but I don’t see how we can view the same problems as unique, over and over again. Take the hard work others have done before us, leverage it for our city and residents benefit, and do the same with out struggles and wins- publish our process successes and our common software solutions and share in the efficiencies and collaborations that can strengthen our governments and improve their operation.
To wit, this is exactly how I’m approaching our efforts to implement opendata in both the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda. San Francisco, New York and Chicago have done the hard work blazing a trail, now we have a great process to follow so we don’t have to do the same hard work as they did.
- Identify problem
- Search for existing solution
- Plug and play.
And I think that the more we talk about the processes and struggles to change, the more we all gain.