In recent months we’ve seen many new technologies and partnerships aimed at helping local government workers conduct restaurant health inspections more effectively and efficiently. In Boston, participants in a civic innovation competition are using Yelp and city data to develop an algorithm to predict potential violations that will help better target health inspections. In Chicago, a recently completed pilot harnessed advanced analytics to reduce the time it takes inspectors to identify critical violations in city food establishments by seven days. And in cities across the country, health inspectors are trading in clipboards for tablets and other mobile tools, making it easier and faster to access and report information out in the field.
These laudable initiatives are transforming the way local governments inspect and regulate food establishments, providing a valuable and much-needed boost to public health while better deploying limited government resources to focus on bad actors instead of rule-abiding restaurant owners.
Yet there is still more work to be done. As innovators in government and civic tech continue to develop initiatives to improve health inspections, they would be wise to empower the inspectors in the field to exercise greater discretion in decision-making.
It’s high time for a broad re-evaluation of employee discretion in local government health inspections to accompany the rethinking of the technologies that support these workers. Indeed, amid the recent flurry of innovations in predictive analytics and mobile tools in restaurant health inspections, there has been less progress in overturning the bureaucratic conventions that govern how much leeway government health inspectors are given as they do their work. Too often, these inspectors are constricted by a rigid checklist of confusing rules and codes developed long before social media and open data transformed the relationship between restaurants, government and citizens. As a result, for many health inspectors, following a checklist is given priority over the higher virtue of advancing public health.
We need government managers to empower their employees to think differently: to be more creative, innovative and thoughtful in confronting a situation in which the written rule may not align with what’s best for public health. We need greater adoption of what Columbia Law Professor William Simon and other leading thinkers on this issue refer to as “documented exceptions,” instances in which bureaucratic workers deviate from a rule that does not fit the given situation and then carefully and transparently record their decision and alternative course of action.
I’ve been advocating for greater employee discretion in government health inspections for years. But now, with the rise of predictive analytics and mobile tools to advance this work, there’s more incentive than ever for bureaucratic conventions to get up to speed. These new technologies should ease fears about greater employee discretion by providing powerful accountability tools to ensure that empowered health inspectors do not abuse or otherwise misuse their enhanced discretionary powers. And best of all, greater employee discretion can ensure that these new technologies are not underutilized.
After all, even health inspectors empowered with state-of-the-art predictive analytics and the latest mobile tools can do little if they are obstructed by outdated rules that prevent them from exercising thoughtful discretion in the field.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.