Codifying Innovation in City Government

The following is a guest post from Logan Kleier, the Chief Information Security Officer of the City of Portland, OR.  Welcome, Logan!

A stagnant U.S. economy continues to affect the fortunes of city governments. According to a September 2011 report by the National League of Cities, cities have experienced their fifth straight year to year revenue decline dating back to 2007. Government IT budgets follow this same economic trend by either remaining the same each year or shrinking, while their responsibilities grow. For example, Houston’s Department of Information Technology went from 164 full time equivalents (FTEs) in 2011 to 126 in the 2012 budget. Given the ongoing economic climate, we should expect this trend to continue. The most vexing part of this situation is that government IT is struggling to deliver answers because it uses yesterday’s technology to deliver answers for today’s problems.

Most people agree that technological innovation enables organizations to solve old problems in new ways. This is the classic definition of innovation. We know that the private sector bets on innovation to deliver answers to problems. Innovation isn’t always easy or successful, but many well known companies regularly and systematically invest in it.

For example, no one disputes that the birth of Google Maps fundamentally changed how people search and organize geo-spatial data. This tradition of investing in technology is not a new phenomenon. The roots of innovation date are not limited to “tech-sector” companies. GE, long considered to be a stalwart of American business, created the icon of all innovation, the light bulb.

And yet, curiously we see very little of this investment mindset in city government. Cities should be systematically investing in innovation, but they don’t. In fact, technology investment roadmaps are virtually non-existent for most of 20 largest cities (or at a minimum can’t be found through any search engine). Some of this is due to the fact that government entities have a lower risk tolerance than the private sector. Fears of being criticized by voters for waste always weigh on elected and appointed officials minds. Invariably, press coverage for struggling technology projects are marked as a failure and not as organizational learning opportunities.

As case in point, the City of Portland’s municipal WiFi experiment (Full disclosure: I managed this project) was roundly criticized in the press as a waste of taxpayer dollars. And yet the city invested no money in the company and learned various valuable lessons about the WiFi’s usefulness for mobile city workers.

With this said, there seems to be another reason for a lack of technological innovation in city government. That reason is that innovation has not been codified into a practice within city government. Some view technological innovation as a serendipitous moment where mysterious forces align to produce an inspirational solution to a troubling problem. While this may happen in some cases, the reality of innovation is that there appears to be certain practices that enable innovation to happen in a more systematic fashion.

The three things that seem to characterize forward thinking cities are: 1) a philosophical commitment to technological innovation, 2) a financial commitment and 3) a centralized and empowered authority for innovation. Cities applying technological innovations to old problems are not practicing in “eureka” moments. Instead, they are applying the principles listed above.

A philosophical commitment to technological innovation often comes in the form of a policy and/or political commitment to technology. For example, the wide variety of open data initiatives have been linked to explicit policy and political commitment to open government through the use of broader data access.

Those municipalities where the mayor and CIO create a commitment to technology are the ones with the clearest progress towards utilizing innovative software or programs (like Code for America) to solve municipal issues. Second, a financial commitment is just as important. While policy and political commitments matter, if there is no financial backing to this policy, it is more likely that innovation will be only an idea. Clear and sufficient budget enables results. Lastly, some cities have appointed senior level IT officials with a centralized and empowered authorization to apply various innovations to solve problems.

These are some of the commonalities that bind city technology innovators. What else do you see as the necessary to codifying innovation into city government? And where do you see it happening?

Logan is the Chief Information Security Officer for the City of Portland. He can be reached at @PortlandInfoSec or logan.kleier [@]

Disclaimer: These opinions are my own and do not represent the views of the City of Portland.

Logan Kleier

About Logan Kleier

Logan Kleier is the Chief Information Security Officer for the City of Portland, OR.
  • Anonymous

    As a former city employee, I understand how out of touch many municipalities are with technology. I worked at my city on two separate occasions. The first time was from 1997-2000. At the time, I was pushing for us to get on the web and start writing web-based applications and use open source software. No one listened. They liked the mainframe. The second time was from 2005-2010. During this time, I pushed for us to adopt things like Google Apps for mail, calendar, etc. I also pushed for us to use Django or Rails for web development. And I tried to get us to use YouTube. Once again, no one listened. They decided that Microsoft and .Net were the way to go for development. In over a year since I left, they still haven’t added a new web app on the website. They also went with a proprietary solution for hosting videos. Videos are only available by streaming. In Windows media format. Which means they aren’t available on mobile platforms. And after I left, they migrated from Novell Groupwise to Microsoft Exchange.

    I would love to still be a city employee, but its frustrating to see them try and solve problems by only spending money on proprietary solutions.

    Based on my observations, municipal I.T. shops cannot be innovative as long as those in charge rely on salespeople for solutions rather than employees.

  • Alissa

    The NLC report can be downloaded here:

  • Logan Kleier

    It’s definitely a commitment to move change forward in city IT. Leadership is definitely a must. I’ve also noticed that the line between change and no change is small in most city governments. Without focused leadership, innovation/change lies in the hands of a few in IT management. And the balance between changing or not, can be impacted by only one or two people.  

  • Ryan Wold

    Jeff,  I’ve had similar experiences in government: identifying opportunities to innovate by using lightweight technologies or more modern concepts to solve existing problems, and my results have been mixed.

    Logan’s article revolves around the theme of an antiquated government culture.  Government as a system was not designed for innovation, at least not at the rate, pace, and scope we expect today’s innovators.  

    A large disconnect I see with OpenGov and innovation in the city is public use and management of technology.  As in most regards, government lags behind private sector advancements.  With agile techniques continuing to spread, lowering the walls between IT and subdivisions of an organization, private companies have learned that technology is not longer icing on the cake, but a core ingredient to virtually all operations.  Unfortunately, in government, IT is often relegated to its own department, and the walls in and out of those departments are often steeped in bureaucracy and also heavily risk averse.  Thus, governments charged to innovate have lots of organizational inertia to overcome.

    In terms of government IT staff; their roles are changing greatly, and quickly.  Just as cloud services have organizations rethinking servers and DBA’s, the same challenges are facing governments – how to adapt to the technology, and also, how do adapt their staff and organization.  Plus, collective bargaining agreements increase the challenge of re-organizing, effectively solidifying the structure of working staff, adding a layer of complexity to an organization tasked with re-inventing itself.  What do you do with the legacy Cobol developer who has 25 years experience? An IT manager looking to implement more streamlined solutions quickly discovers that government jobs themselves have inherent political value to the organization – that is not to say value to the public.  But when program and budgets are heavily tied to prior commitments, it is both politically and organizationally difficult to break the cycle.  Growing the size of departments is often touted as ‘increasing service levels’ or ’job growth’, rather than what the public often perceives: too many dead leaves on an overgrown tree.

    In my experience, proprietary solutions are sought by governments because they are perceived as less risky, and ultimately, sustainability is a very real challenge in government because of high elected and staff turnover.  I agree with this procurement practice in a minor respect.  Is government’s core competency to build software?  I hope not in most cases. The real issue for me comes down to cost and value.  Open-source technologists espouse lower costs and a culture of participation and sharing as valuable reasons to consider open solutions.  However, government measures value in many other ways.

    So, what might work to help this situation?  

    Staff Education.  Basic data classes for Elected and Senior Management would go a long way to empowering them with the vocabulary needed to more effectively interface with more technical resources in the organization.  ie: Every manager should know what systems their organization uses and that they can get data out of them in a useful format.

    Public Education:  As citizens become aware and familiar with tools that give them the ability to participate, watchdog, influence, and collaborate with government, a shift will occur.  Politicians will have less leeway to operate without accountability and citizens will be able to engage in public affairs on terms they are more accustomed to: ie: online.  I think its important here to promote collaboration and downplay criticism here.

    Collaboration All Around the Space: Government innovation connotes a responsibility within government to drive innovation.  I’d argue that what is really needed is an openness to innovation.  I’m weary that a typical government innovation project may proceed like other government projects: waterfall.  ie: We’ll allocated staff and budget and send them off to “go innovate”.  As an alternative, I’d propose organizations around the space (ie: Code for America, Sunlight Foundation, Civic Commons, etc) continue to work with governments to build a culture of openness, sharing, and re-use, such as city engagements, and multi-city/region partnerships amongst municipalities.  In this way, municipalities will learn how to cooperate with their peers, resulting in case studies, etc that will foster more good behavior.

    I suppose I’m really talking about refactoring government. How do we modify the structure of government while respecting the functions it already performs?  How can we open up conversations about what governments really should do?  How can citizens encourage more effective government?  Technology will play a key and central role, but it remains a means: a tool to support the work and is not and end in itself.  Government too is a means and not an end in itself.  I’d like to codify meaning into the municipal systems through open metrics.

  • Nick Grossman

    Thanks Ryan.  Wow, there is so much to chew into here.

    To jump in on one point — you are exactly right that support is a key factor when govt’s choose tech solutions.  Our perspective when it comes to open source is not necessarily that the governments should maintain and manage their own open source code, but that by encouraging or requiring that new code they fund be open, companies can form that support that code, for their city and others.

  • sana khan

    Thanks Ryan.  Wow, there is so much to chew into here.Car Games