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Seven Ideas to Reboot Government Innovation In San Francisco

BY Luke Fretwell | Thursday, January 26 2012

Photo: Shutterstock

Over at GovFresh, Luke Fretwell just followed up on Sarah Stirland's recent story about San Francisco's new open-government plans with his own take on what's going on with open government in San Francisco and what technologists and people in government could be doing there. With his permission, we're reprinting his post in full.
Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh.

There’s been a great deal of discussion lately around the topic of government innovation, especially here in San Francisco, with the appointment of a new chief innovation officer, a new “civic accelerator,” a new venture with a consortium of Bay Area technology companies and a new technology and innovation task force led by SF Mayor Ed Lee.

All signs point to a bright gov 2.0 future for SF but, before we get too excited, let’s look back so we can learn how to best overcome the past two years of innovation inertia.

These critiques and ideas aren’t meant to minimize the great open government work that’s been accomplished by key former and current officials. Good people inside SF’s government are doing the best they can with the resources and mandate they have, which much of the time appears to be limited.

Despite having one of the nation’s first open source procurement policies, initiated by former mayor Gavin Newsom in 2009, you’d be hard-pressed to find a line of code that’s not proprietary. One SF official once told me he almost lost his job advocating for the city’s use of open source software.

The city’s apps showcase was created using the open source platform WordPress, as was the open collaboration initiative website PolicySF, now both relics of the Newsom years. The latter has been abandoned completely and the former, apart from a site redesign, has been tucked away into oblivion. Newsom’s mayoral website, sfmayor.org, was also developed in WordPress, however, Lee’s site at the same domain appears to now be powered by .asp.

Despite having one of the nation’s first open data directives, SF has yet to establish an aggressive mandate to make city data more public. In fact, the directive is no longer even accessible. SF’s open data portal, DataSF, had recent dataset additions in December, however, has been lackluster in its growth or general promotion of its offerings.

Since the launch of DataSF, the same applications have been touted as examples of open data inspiring entrepreneurial innovation. Those same apps are still the sole reference points for journalists, even as recent as this week.

One of the city’s most prominent open data applications, EcoFinder, is no longer available for download on iTunes. The app launched to much fanfare and featured in major news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Today, it is non-existent.

One unnamed civic startup tried collaborating with city officials in 2011, requesting access to specific departmental data, only to be told it didn’t have the capacity to do so. After seeing a demo of the startup’s app, the department managed to find the resources to mimic its functionality and launched an app of its own. The department has yet to make the data accessible and essentially monopolized a market when it could have simply fostered entrepreneurial innovation and saved taxpayer dollars.

When it comes to fostering civic entrepreneurship, the true shining star of SF’s open data efforts is Routesy, developed by Steven Peterson and sells for $4.99 on iTunes with a 4+ rating. To the city’s credit, it released the transit data, but not without a fight, and then just got out of the way. Routesy wasn’t developed with the help of a civic accelerator or hackathon. It was developed by an entrepreneur who leveraged public data to create an application which he now sells through a private sector platform and is forced to maintain a sustainable commercial offering by meeting the demands of the market and building on its success.

That’s civic innovation.

Ed Lee can change all of this, and he doesn’t need a task force to do it.

Here are a few ideas.

Build the best mayoral website in the world

The best way to show the rest of government you’re serious about making SF the next “City 2.0″ is to practice what you preach. Build the best mayoral website in the world and, to prove you’re agile and truly grok the lean startup principles, launch it within the next month and leverage the civic surplus of the city’s world-class developer and designer community to help you do it (see New York City’s Reinvent NYC.gov hackathon).

Use ‘Built in SF’ technology

The SF Bay Area is home to the world’s most innovative technology companies, including Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and WordPress, to name just a few. Leverage these technologies and promote your use of it. As mentioned before, build the city’s web infrastructure on WordPress, host monthly tweetups and live YouTube question and answer sessions, document your days with Instagram. The opportunities to use these tools to better communicate with the city’s residents and promote the ‘Built in SF’ technologies are endless. NYC Mayor Bloomberg is a pro at this.

Go back to the (data) fundamentals

What’s old is new again, and that applies particularly to public data. Open data advocates applauded the city’s launch of DataSF, but little has been done or championed since. As proven by the Routesy example above, the easiest approach to sparking innovation is to release the data and get out of the way. Solicit feedback from the private sector on what data it would like access to, mandate agencies evaluate and release data, only procure software that has the functionality to push data outward and require every agency to prominently link directly to DataSF.

Leverage the civic surplus

Bypass procurement hurdles and limited development resources and leverage SF’s world-class designer and developer community to help build the fundamental technology infrastructure, such as agency websites and applications, especially for projects such as Open311 implementation. Host monthly “HackSF” codeathons at City Hall to build off specific requirements, developed by agencies or in collaboration with volunteer developers, and create a consistent sense of civic community.

Open source the infrastructure

Open source is a fundamental component of open government. Start by re-launching your website using open source software, preferably WordPress given the company’s affiliation with SF, and challenging (or mandating) other departments do the same, recognizing them with a monthly award or acknowledgement ceremony.

Give citizens a dashboard

Former Newsom advisor Brian Purchia recently recommended SF adopt the federal government’s IT Dashboard to help the city save money on technology projects and provide better insight into what its working on. Go beyond IT. Provide visualizations into all of SF’s public expenditures. It’ll keep you honest and make citizens happy.

These are the low-hanging fruits to true civic innovation and can be done over the course of a few months. An agile government and its leaders can implement and empower others to execute now, especially in a city who’s essence is the antithesis of bureaucracy.

We’ll know soon enough whether Lee truly groks the startup mentality of his constituency, just as NYC, Philadelphia, Chicago and Baltimore are doing, and can help SF get its gov 2.0 groove back.

Contact Luke Fretwell at luke@govfresh.com or connect on LinkedIn or Twitter at @govfresh or @lukefretwell.

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