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Facing 'Dysfunctional' Tech Infrastructure, San Francisco's Mayor Ed Lee Creates Innovation Fellows Program

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, September 21 2012

San Francisco's Mayor Ed Lee announced a new "Mayor's Innovation Fellowship Program" late Thursday afternoon, saying that his office was inspired by the White House's example.

“We’re going to be asking fellows to not just step up on the week-ends, not just when they have time to volunteer," Lee said at an open house event at Code for America's headquarters in downtown San Francisco Thursday afternoon. "This is a business proposition for the city. We truly want to change the way we do things. We don’t have to do them through lawsuits anymore. We can do them through our passion for doing the best things for our citizens and businesses."

“We are going to establish a city innovation fellows program that recruits people and recruits companies who will pay their employees to help us to create this fellowship program, and tackle all of the constant ongoing problems, whether they’re e-mail systems, or different technology systems, or whether we can innovate with our public to get innovative services out there to tackle long-term issues in our neighborhoods.”

Lee made the announcement at an event in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood that brought together top officials from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the local startup community. San Francisco is the first of six cities that the officials from the OSTP and the innovation fellows are visiting to solicit input and ideas on their projects. The other cities on their tour: Los Angeles, Denver, Colorado, Louisville, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina.

For San Francisco's part, the city is looking to the corporate sector to fund sabbaticals for those who are interested in helping out. It's looking for two fellows with significant years of experience under their belts from the private sector to come to work for the city as innovation fellows for nine months to a year. The city is also tweaking an existing City Hall policy fellowship program that usually accepts people from out of college to spend more time thinking about how to use tech to deliver and improve city services.

The fellowship program has four specific areas of focus: open data; developing a "civic marketplace;" civic participation; and technology policy. The city's looking for fellows to begin their terms in January.

The city has already embarked on ventures in each of these areas, but from the looks of the program description, it looks as if the Mayor's office wants to accelerate and develop each of its initiatives. For example, the city already runs an open data program, but the fellowship program asks its participants to work with city departments and agencies to more actively promote the release of government data to the Web development community. Other responsibilities will include crafting policies and standards, as well as working with other cities on standards.

In terms of developing a "civic marketplace," fellows will be expected to organize events like hackathons to develop useful applications. Jay Nath, the city's chief innovation officer, pointed to last summer's "Summer of Smart" program as an example of he type of event that the city wants to organize. That program ultimately resulted in Smartmuni a fleet management iPad app that uses a GPS system to keep muni staff apprised of where all the streetcars are. The city is currently rolling the system out.

The civic participation project will involve efforts to draw public input and ideas into solving some of the city's more complex problems. The city's currently using an idea-crowdsourcing platform called MindMixer to solicit feedback from the public.

The tech policy portion of the program will involve prioritizing issues and thinking things through rather than reacting to events, Nath said in an interview.

"As we work with an individual, we'll identify some priority areas that we want to focus on, which might be establishing a policy around how do we provide access to our dark fiber network in our city, or it could be around the cell phone tower [positioning] process" Nath said. "There's numerous areas, and this is where a fellow could help us, is understanding the different tension points that we could look at from a policy perspective."

One of the areas that policy fellow might want to look at is why the city of San Francisco has had such intractable problems with its own technology systems.

A report issued this August by the City and County of San Francisco slammed the administration for its ongoing wasteful spending and duplicative technology infrastructure. (To be clear, these problems existed way before Lee became Mayor.)

"For any real progress to be made, the Mayor must provide the same leadership in meeting the internal technological needs of City government that he has shown in establishing San Francisco as an 'innovative capitol,'" wrote the report's authors.

The city maintains seven different e-mail systems, nine data centers and several wide-area networks, they noted.

"San Francisco’s city wide technology governing structure is ineffective and poorly organized, hampered by a hands-off Mayor, a weak Committee on Information Technology, an unreliable Department of Technology, and a departmentalized culture that only reinforces the City’ s technological ineffectiveness," the report reads. "Stalled completion of various inter-departmental projects, one of which is now 15 years old and way over budget, gives further evidence of dysfunction. The City lacks detailed technology budget and staffing plans as well as other reports with citywide perspectives. Technology managers in the City are almost unanimous in their criticism of the hiring process, which slows the recruitment of highly qualified candidates in a competitive market."

Nath said in an interview that the Mayor is becoming "more involved," and that he "recognizes the need to improve," and that the mayor's office is scheduled to respond formally to the report later in the year.

John Walton, the city's chief information officer, did not respond to a phone call for comment.