How Can Local Governments Work More Like Silicon Valley?

Palo Alto’s city manager wants governments to rip up the IT rule book to make better investments.

by / August 11, 2016
James Keene (CityManagers.org)

Local governments will spend in excess of $50 billion this year on information technology. More than half of that money will go toward maintaining  outdated and ineffective computer systems. As cities approach the inevitable task of replacing and updating them, James Keene has one piece of advice: Decentralize.  

Several months ago, Keene, the city manager of Palo Alto, Calif., co-wrote an article published by the Brookings Institution that criticized local government’s traditional mindset about IT. He and Palo Alto CIO Jonathan Reichental listed five deep-seated problems with government technology and their suggestions for fixing those glaring weaknesses.

It’s pretty unusual for a top appointed local official -- who’s not in IT -- to go on the record about what’s wrong with government’s approach to it. But Keene, who has spent years working in the public sector, including stints as city manager for Berkeley, Calif., and Tucson, Ariz., admits that being in the heart of Silicon Valley has had an impact on his views. For one thing, he says, it’s been easier to try out new technologies. 

That experience has led him to the conclusion that it’s no longer practical to have a centralized IT operation, where city governments design and build large-scale computer programs that can take years to implement, are rarely delivered on time and are often over budget. Instead, Keene wants cities to break up big technology projects into more manageable pieces that can be built more quickly, an idea called “agile development” that is already a growing trend in public sector IT. Keene also wants cities to rely less on expensive hardware and take advantage of cloud computing. “We’re moving everything we can into the cloud,” he says. “It’s absurd to keep maintaining all those server farms.”

What Keene is essentially advocating for is a more collaborative approach to how localities decide what technology they should use in improving services. That starts, he says, with open data. Palo Alto has an “open data by default” policy that has made vast amounts of city data publicly available. It has fostered partnerships with coders and startup companies, and led to the creation of new tech tools that can be replicated elsewhere. 

Keene’s views are a reaction against a culture that he sees as too rooted in a rigid, top-down approach to building IT systems by a select group of vendors. By opening things up, he says, more ideas and solutions will bubble up that can be built with less risk and at a lower cost. 

Another part of the Silicon Valley ethos that has influenced Keene is Stanford University’s interdisciplinary approach to learning as a model for acquiring knowledge. Rather than rely on state or federal government for help, Keene has reached out to local governments around the world to exchange ideas on new IT tools and strategies. Later this year, the city will meet with officials from Heidelberg, Germany, and Enschede in the Netherlands to discuss smart city strategies. “Forget federalism,” Keene says. “Cross-fertilization of ideas between cities is important today. When you network with other cities around the world, you get better ideas on how to use technology.”

Keene’s biggest goal is to use digital tools, such as social media networks, to create a more up-to-date form of civic engagement to solve city problems. “The days of vending machine government where citizens are dependent on city hall to dispense whatever they need are over,” he says.

This article was originally publuished on Governing.

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.