Innovative Public-Sector Technology Requires Change from the Bottom Up

Innovation at the bottom requires trying things and being imperfect, but is now what’s leading the country.

by / September 23, 2014

Government tradition and the often lengthy project approval process can hamper new technology projects. But how can local residents and employees take the initiative to generate new ideas?

“They will organize hackathons and they’ll organize groups of civic participation to get people working together to create software for the city,” said Sarah Granger, the founder of the Center for Technology, Media, and Society, who attended the Governing California Leadership Forum in Sacramento in mid-September. “Then you can make some progress, but you really have to have a critical mass of some key people involved who really want to drive it forward and make it happen.” 

Peter Sims, co-founder of Fuse Corps, an organization that partners start-ups with public-sector leaders for technology projects, said he feels that people shouldn’t be allowed to fail when they’re taking new approaches. 

“It takes people who are willing to try things," he said. "It takes people who are willing to not be perfect, to fail here and there, to learn what’s going to be a new approach to solving problems for citizens, and that, after all, is the mandate that government leaders have -- to solve citizens’ problems."

City and state organizations face different challenges when they want to try new things. 

“With cities, it’s just generally more nimble, smaller organizations, and a lot of the time they understand that resources are scarce, and that digital projects don’t tend to take a ton of resources," Granger said, adding that states often must deal with a lot more bureaucracy, officials must get approval through so many levels that it’s easy to get stuck in the process.

“One thing that I’ve found working on these types of projects is, you really need one champion at each level in order to get it through and get it to happen," she said, "so the fewer layers you have to go through, the easier it is to make that happen.” 

And it’s often a grass-roots effort.

“Innovation is coming from the bottom up, so it takes a lot of experimentation," Sims noted. "It requires trying things and being imperfect to get there, but this is what’s actually leading the country now from the bottom up, because the leadership just isn’t coming from the top down."

But oftentimes, Granger said, people aren’t sold on new technology projects until they’ve seen the benefits.

“When you realize that, if you can help with something that’s important to you in your neighborhood, then it makes a lot easier to have these projects come to fruition,” she said. “As opposed to sort of this general concept of open data and what does that mean. When you can tell people that if you have data about their streets, then they’ll be able to find parking spaces better. That makes it easier for them to understand why it’s useful for them to get involved.”  

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.