Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Sam: Leveraging Innovation to Improve City Hall

The text below is taken from Sam Liccardo's newsletter, and I couldn't agree with him more on our need to cut red tape and leverage technology and crowd-sourcing to improve current city processes. In order to help San Jose thrive (all of San Jose) we need to fix the existing permitting issues and increase the level of transparency. I'm really glad to see Sam highlight these issues and propose a strategy to address them--hopefully this turns into action! The full, unedited article is below:

Sam’s Corner: Leveraging Innovation to Improve City Hall 

San José is one city, but two worlds.  While our innovative local tech companies--from PayPal to Polycom to Pinger-- continue to hire at a pace at which they cannot find enough qualified workers, San José continues to suffers from an unemployment rate hovering around 7%.   Many more of our neighbors work part-time or multiple jobs at far less pay than they earned before the Great Recession.

Small businesses increasingly have become the employers of many San José residents—including self-employed entrepreneurs-- left behind in the tech boom.  One way to address the yawning opportunity gap would focus our municipal energies on lightening the burdens of those small businesses.   Hence, my efforts to launch StartUp San José several months ago – to fill empty storefronts by leveraging the entrepreneurial energy of our community with fee waivers, wi-fi access, and marketing assistance.

Yet as we all know, City Hall can get in the way.   The permitting process serves as a frequent source of frustration; red tape, uncertainty, conflicting directives, and delays drive small business owners batty.  Although processes have improved in recent months, stories still echo of store owners who anxiously await a city permit that will entitle them to start operating or employing workers.  By the time they’re finally granted the permit to operate, they’ve burned through most of their marketing budget by paying a lease for nine months without any revenue.

How do we “fix” this?  Technological innovation can help, particularly by improving the transparency and accountability of City Hall.   That’s why I recently proposed an initiative with Councilmember Johnny Khamis to take two important steps toward a solution:  employing tracking software, and launching what’s known as an “open data” platform.  

First, the tracking software:  currently, you can order a FedEx package from Timbuktu, and you can track it’s progress each mile with to a simple website, but if you submit an application for a city permit, it may disappear into a bureaucratic abyss.   Customers cannot know who to call, how to get it expedited, or the reason for the delay.   Relatively simple software, however, can identify the desk on which every application rests in City Hall, and for how long.   It can also pinpoint the source of any delay, such as an incomplete application, staff deliberation, or inaction due to a lengthy queue at intake.    By looking at the paths of thousands of such applications, and aggregating that data, we can isolate “choke points” where management might improve employee training, or implement streamlining measures, like automation.   Managers can also identify effective employees, and reward them for their performance.   Simply, City Hall becomes more accountable.

Next, we can improve the process by releasing all of the data that we’ve collected to the public.  How?  Launching City Hall’s first “open data” platform, in which the city allows the public to download of all of the data from a website—with the names and personal information appropriately redacted—that the city collects.   Open data platforms have enabled innovative software developers in other cities to create desktop software and smartphone applications to do everything from warning diners of restaurants with frequent health code violations, to informing transit riders of the arrival time of the next bus.   In this case, by hosting a “hack-a-thon” for local apps developers, we can unleash their innovative skills to provide smartphone apps that will help customers with “real-time” information, via a website or automated text, to inform them about the permit’s status, who to call if it appears “stuck,” and which supervisor to appeal to.  The app could to inform customers of the average duration for the approval process of each permit type, so they can budget accordingly.    Software developers might also find innovative ways to streamline processes, such as by using web-based tools that eliminate a trip to City Hall.

San José has no shortage of civic-minded software developers—including many bright college students -- who want to make our city a better place, and who can “beta-test” a potentially successful smartphone app, using San José as their laboratory.  By unleashing their creativity, we can improve the ways that our city service its residents, and boost our local economy.

Sam Liccardo

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