Innovation is understandably not something most people associate with government. More than most any place in society, government offices are thought of — accurately or not — as where innovation and cutting-edge thinking go to die. But it doesn’t have to be that way, nor is it that way everywhere.
West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon says many of his fellow mayors and city managers across the country want to take more innovative approaches to solving problems and better serving residents. But doing so is about a lot more than just learning new software or a new app. Truly innovative government means busting out of the “but we’ve always done it this way” mindset that so-often bludgeons good ideas to death before they see the light of day.
“It’s not because people don’t want to [be innovative] in their cities, but because we have so many procedures that make it impossible,” he says.
Driven by Cabaldon — one of the more forward-thinking mayors in the U.S. — fewer of these obstacles exist in West Sacramento these days. How forward-thinking is he? Cabaldon was one of 18 mayors invited to attend a series of workshops at the South by Southwest festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas last March. Most of his colleagues were from the places you might expect — Baltimore, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Louisville … cities most people have at least heard of. For Cabaldon, that meant a lot of answering the question, “Where is this West Sacramento place?”
The topics covered in the workshops included the usual municipal problems like improving transportation and combatting homelessness, along with newer issues like how to better handle fingerprinting Uber and Lyft drivers. And, in a bit of true inspiration, learning about a startup called SmartProcure.
Under normal conditions, if a government needs something like new printers, it puts out a request for proposal (RFP) from its usual vendors, chooses the least-costly one and writes out a purchase order. Wham, bam, when can it be here? But SmartProcure provides government users with a searchable database that allows them to compare what other agencies across the nation are paying for those same products, meaning they now have the information to drive better-informed, more cost-effective decisions.
“Normally, we’re at the mercy of our potential suppliers,” Cabaldon says. “But what if we’re to share our data using a platform like that, which would then allow us to drive better deals for taxpayers?”
West Sacramento has become just the kind of place where government is embracing technology-driven innovation. Sometimes that has been by connecting with efforts like Code for America, a nonprofit that partners with cities to help them better utilize technology. The San-Francisco-based organization’s mission is to make government services simple, effective and easy to use. Other times it is simply taking a fresh approach to how the city helps an entrepreneur with a good idea to get that project off the ground.
Thanks to lessons learned from their experience with Code for America, the use of technology and successfully launching a new project often now go hand in hand. For example, when the city was approached by folks looking to start an urban farm, city officials first considered doing what felt normal — “inventory everything that we could and create the most perfect, comprehensive policy possible to make sure nothing bad happens with an urban farm,” Cabaldon says. But after giving it some thought, they reconsidered.
“In government, the first thing we always ask is, ‘What are all the things that could go wrong?’ “ Cabaldon says. “So you spend a lot of time doing lots and lots of analysis, with the expectations that in a year or two you announce and promulgate the perfect policy. Which then, not surprisingly, often fails. In the lean and agile frame that Code for America and most technologists use, you build a little bit and test, and iterate it a little more, and test, and iterate it out.”
That agile method contrasts with the standard project-management method called “waterfall” planning, in which a project’s life cycle takes place in a linear sequence.
The city opted to approve the urban farm, without first creating an urban agriculture ordinance. “This time we asked ourselves, ‘of the things that could go wrong, how many of them are catastrophic? Are people going to die? Let’s try one and see how it goes, and learn from that one experience.’”
With no problems with the initial urban farms, the city decided to approve more.
“We now have the most urban farms in the region by far, even though we never actually did a comprehensive full policy on it,” Cabaldon says. “The other jurisdictions in the region that have spent a lot of time developing full policies have relatively few, and that’s the difference between how government traditionally works — which the technologists would call waterfall-style planning — as opposed to this lean, agile, iterative process.” Code for America helped the city learn how to adopt this new process in a way that has worked for them, and for urban farmers.