SF’s Civic Bridge Program Taps Volunteers to Seed Innovation

A recent impact assessment has found that since Civic Bridge began back in 2015, the program has brought in nearly 24,000 total volunteer hours and an estimated $3.7 million of pro bono services.

by / March 27, 2019
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San Francisco is a city facing an increasing number of complex problems, while at the same time having a wealth of civic resources such as skilled residents and innovative companies.

So in 2015, city leaders created a program called Civic Bridge, which in its most basic form sought to create — as its name implies — a bridge between the two. The way the program works is relatively simple: organizers recruit private-sector residents who volunteer alongside government staffers to start the innovation process. They do this by researching issues, identifying pain points, conducting analysis and brainstorming agile or iterative projects that if carried out could yield solutions. Participants' time is dedicated on a pro bono basis over the course of 16 weeks, and their ultimate goal is to simply help put city departments on the path to improvement.

A recent impact assessment indicates that the Civic Bridge program has provided the city with a significant amount of advice and expertise in the years it has existed, said San Francisco Chief Innovation Officer Krista Canellakis. In fact, that assessment found that since the program began in 2015, Civic Bridge has brought in nearly 24,000 total volunteer hours and an estimated $3.7 million of pro bono services.  

Projects so far have involved a wide range of city challenges, from creating a system to help residents find affordable housing to helping foster better communication between citizens and police, and some of the most renowned companies have participated — Google being one of the first.

In 2015, Google sent volunteers to work alongside city workers to help them find a fresh way to approach a new problem: connecting people with affordable housing. Google staffers came in for a 16-week period, helped the city conduct research and brought in new methodologies that ultimately enabled them to prototype what a future project might look like. In layman’s terms, the volunteers helped create a rough draft for an innovative solution.

“They didn’t build any new technology,” Canellakis said, “but they were really trying to set the direction of the project within that 16-week time frame.”

Ultimately, the Google Civic Bridge volunteers helped San Francisco form an RFP they could work with, which led to the eventual development of an easy-to-use platform residents can now access.

That’s just one example.

Departments throughout the city have benefited through Civic Bridge volunteers. Tessa Rudnick is a senior business analyst for the city’s department of police accountability, a role in which she functions as a director of IT for one of the biggest municipal police-civilian oversight agencies in the country. Rudnick is a technologist by trade who started work with the department last summer.

One of her top priorities has been to modernize the 20-year-old database currently used there for case management. This is a heavy lift with a number of complex associated challenges. Identifying the right modernization project was an inherent problem.

Luckily, before Rudnick arrived her department had started the process of participating in Civic Bridge. They were paired with a private company called Slalom, which describes itself as “a purpose-driven consulting firm that helps companies solve business problems and build for the future.” Slalom is, essentially, a perfect fit for the type of ideation work Rudnick needed help with.

The 16-week pro bono structure of the program, Rudnick said, meant that a team of five collaborators from Slalom worked within the department full-time for a month, and they didn’t just come to offer some kind of product. Instead, they spent time really working to understand the department’s culture, capacities and the challenges it faced. What they helped the department do was publish an RFQ long before they would have been able to without the Civic Bridge assistance.

Rudnick compared the difference in speed of process to listening to a podcast or audio book, and then kicking the speed up from 1 to 1.5.

“We would have moved off our old database eventually, but this really sped things along,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s about getting things done faster for the public.”

It’s that structured internal cohort model that makes Civic Bridge unique nationally as well. In terms of similar efforts, there’s a group in the Chicago area called Civic Consulting Alliance, but it functions more as an external partner that facilitates pro bono relationships. There’s a similar group in Boston called Common Impact as well. Civic Bridge, however, is organized and facilitated within city hall, specifically within the municipal Office of Civic Innovation.

The city, Canellakis said, sees this as complementary to the Startup in Residence (STiR) program, which basically grew up in the Bay Area before going nationwide. The key difference is that the STiR program is for startup companies looking to build a viable product. Civic Bridge is predicated upon donation of expertise and time, without a tangible yield for the technologists, other than the warm fuzzy feeling of having improved the jurisdiction where you live and work.

And it’s only getting bigger. In all likelihood, a new recruiting push will expand Civic Bridge even further in the near future.

“We’ve never actually done any outbound recruiting,” Canellakis said. “All our companies have reached out to us and asked what they can do to help the city. Right now, though, we’re doing our first outbound push for the program.”

Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.

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