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In Kansas City, "Innovation" Means Modern Government and a Modest Budget

BY Sam Roudman | Monday, April 8 2013

Kansas City. Photo: Out.of.Focus / Flickr

After years of cutbacks, Kansas City, Mo., is moving out of the shadow cast by the economic downturn — and officials hope a new approach to technology can help them along the way.

A recently passed budget will increase funding for parks, sewers, and youth programs — but city agencies suffer through outdated processes and old technology, while municipal leaders complain they still don't have the funds to make an end-to-end overhaul.

“We’re still using a DOS system,” says Pat "Duke" Dujakovic, an active duty firefighter and president of the greater Kansas City AFL-CIO. “Still using 20, 30 year old software.”

In order to get its agencies up to date and improve efficiency, Kansas City Mayor Sly James hired Kansas City's first chief innovation officer, Ashley Z. Hand, who started in February. Trained as an architect, Hand spent the previous few years working at the consultancy AECOM, focused on efficiency and technology procurement in bureaucracies like the General Services Administration and the Air Force.

It's a strategy that other cities — like San Francisco and Philadelphia — have adopted as well. But unlike older, more widely understood positions, the "chief innovation officer" title means different things in different cities. In San Francisco, for instance, CIO Jay Nath has spearheaded open software and data initiatives, and turned the results into public-facing apps. In New York City, Chief Information and Innovation Officer Rahul Merchant has the power to set IT policy across agencies as well as launch new projects. A CIO’s duties might include some combination of IT procurement, managing the consolidation and publication of civic data, improving and experimenting with new work processes in city agencies, supporting the business community, and acting as a cheerleader and mouthpiece for the mayor’s office and the city.

For the time being, Hand's role as Kansas City CIO will focus on applying her efficiency experience to a civic infrastructure emerging from a half decade of downturn that resulted in cuts to everything from the parks department to the fire department.

“After the downturn we struggle to keep the doors open to do routine business,” says City Manager Troy Schulte. “I see her spending the bulk of her time on internal operations.”

Kansas City employs 4,400 across 18 agencies. These jobs might seem like a tempting target for someone charged with cleaning bureaucratic house. But according to Dujakovic, the fire fighter and AFL-CIO president, labor is on board with Hand’s new role — which isn’t to say her hiring didn’t arouse some suspicion among city employees.

“Any time things like this are proposed," says Dujakovic, "there’s always a fear that it’s an attempt to try and make sweeping changes that aren’t always good for the employees."

"In this case I don’t think that fear is prevalent or even around," he continued.

The AFL-CIO chief says James, the mayor, met with him before bringing Hand onboard. What's more, the public employees he represents think the city needs an upgrade just as much as officials do, he says. Hand will work on process as well as technology.

The CIO announcement fits in with a slew of recent tech developments in Kansas City. As a 2013 Code for America partner city, Kansas City has a team of civic hackers working there this year to develop new web tools for the city government. As the test ground for ultra high speed Google Fiber, the city and local business have access to internet speeds 100 times faster than broadband. The city's entrepreneurial culture is anchored by organizations like the Kauffman Foundation, a think tank for entrepreneurship and innovation with an endowment of of $2 billion, and the University of Missouri Kansas City's Innovation Center, which acts as a resource for the entrepreneurial community, with a focus on commercializing technology.

Mayor James is making a push to involve Kansas City's entrepreneurs directly in improving city government with what he's calling a "Challenge Cabinet". The cabinet will be an advisory panel of young professionals "with the goal of formulating forward-thinking civic policies that reflect the needs and wants of emerging leaders," according to the mayor's website.

To kickstart her work, Hand has formed “innovation teams” within Kansas City’s different departments. These groups and individuals will develop ideas to improve their agencies, and help fix organizational problems.

As an example of the type of work Hand will do, Schulte mentioned a pilot program she is spearheading to move filing forms with the city, like building or restaurant permits, from paper to online. What’s learned from the $50,000 experiment will help the direct the city in purchasing a $4 to $5 million enterprise permit system in the next two years.

Part of Hand’s job is to improve departments’ performance using measureable outcomes. The Kansas City City Council adopted what it calls "measurable priorities" for the first time last November, and has had a monthly stat review for different departments in place for two years.

Hand will focus on how Kansas City can “use that information to better prioritize our budget,” she says, and “communicate to the community about why we make certain choices as an organization.”

A version of those performance metrics apply to her as well.

“I technically have a two year contract, only one year is funded,” she says. “The onus is on me to demonstrate that we can make our work more effective and hopefully maybe save money in the process.”

For some, her changes can’t come soon enough.

“Hell, we’re still using chalkboards in the fire station,” says Dujakovic, “chalkboards.”