Internal Catalysts for Community Collaboration in Public-Sector Renewal

Paul W. Taylor blogs on making change in government at Center for Digital Government event.

by / November 12, 2008
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The answer is in the room. The room, in this case, was a discussion of changing the way government works at the conclusion of re:public VII: a gathering of those who choose to lead, an invitation-only event convened in Tucson, Ariz., by e.Republic's Center for Digital Government.

The answer is in the room, taken more broadly, recognizes the power and potential of internal initiative in changing the way organizations work.

As a case in point, Veterans Day came with a pair of announcements that new veterans-only social networks were launching, not by upstart newcomers but by incumbents that have been protecting and promoting the interests of veterans -- Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, working with the Ad Council, launched on Tuesday and the Veterans of Foreign Wars brought online this week too.

But that may be just scratching the surface. Back in the room in Tucson, the assembled panel had all gone deeper in their respective jurisdictions. Here are brief summaries of their case stories:


On the Spot: Open Source and Authority to Change

Vivek Kundra, CTO for the District of Columbia, says formal cross-agency agreements to surface and share data has made it possible to democratize D.C.'s data -- for the good of the district and democracy itself.

It has resulted in the surfacing of 260 data feeds across D.C. government and a 30 percent reduction in requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

As noted in an earlier post, the internal initiative to create the 260 feeds was a necessary precondition to creating Apps for Democracy, the $20,000 competition to mash up the district's data.

This final judging is slated for this Thursday, but the contest has attracted a steady stream (with at least one developed every day) of open source apps for platforms from Facebook to iPhones Apps -- including ones that let you know when the next Metro train is coming, give you real-time notification of crimes and disturbances in progress or allow you to customize tour routes in D.C. based on your interests.

Kundra says the Apps for Democracy is part of a deliberate process to rethink the way government is done and in which "citizens and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] co-create" the future with and for government.

Kundra says that a future of that time involves confronting entrenched bureaucracies. He asked for and received the authority to make hiring offers on the spot -- successfully attracting 100 new people into public service that would have otherwise been snapped up by the private sector before government-as-usual could act. A more startling HR move is a parallel mechanism for showing others to the door. The district has also implemented daily performance reviews to identify people who are simply not working (out) and get them off the public payroll. The daily performance checks enforce expectations that everybody gets something done every day. If you are not getting it done, you have until tomorrow or the next day to start. And if you never start, your employment ends.


Building an Arc

The city of Sacramento, Calif., is partnering with Westinghouse to vaporize and monetize trash. So says Sacramento City Manager Ray Kerridge who, upon first meeting, appears to be the kind of guy who has a well thumbed first edition of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Listen a little longer and it becomes clear that he could write Zen and the Art of Repairing Government.

Kerridge enthusiastically detailed joint plans between the city (with a 5 percent ownership stake) and Westinghouse (the majority owner at 95 percent) to build earth's largest plasma arc gasification plant. Riiight, as in Bill Cosby's Noah.

Wikipedia helpfully describes plasma arc gasification as "a waste treatment technology that uses high electrical energy and high temperature created by an electrical arc gasifier. This arc breaks down waste primarily into elemental gas and solid waste slag, in a device called a plasma converter. The process has been intended to be a net generator of electricity, depending upon the composition of input wastes, and to reduce the volumes of waste being sent to landfill sites." Right.

That is exactly what Kerridge says the sacred Northern California city will do. Gone will be the expense of trucking Sacramento's garbage to faraway landfills. What's more, the scheme will redeem slag's good name because in this new brownish-green economy, slag has economic value and a new name -- feed stock.

And Sacramento produces 5,000 tons of feed stock every day, which it will be able to sell as the raw resource for the gasifier. The stuff that comes out of the gasifier has added value in the making of green products. Under the agreement, Sacramento will get a cut of that too. If that wasn't enough, Kerridge says the city is also looking at the possibility at taking garbage off of other cities (for a fee), providing it as feeder stock (for a fee) and taking a third fee for its share of the value-added products.

Amid looks of disbelief and furious note-taking in the room, Kerridge -- whose voice still carries a residual British accent -- reminded the audience of an old saying from his native England, "Where there is muck there is money." The new world translation will be worth watching.


The Education Dividend

The commonwealth of Virginia's strategic partnerships on infrastructure (Northrop Grumman) and enterprise applications (CGI) are credited for bringing hope to hard scrabble southwest Virginia. The collaborations are on track to help create 700 jobs. But the opportunities surface problems of their own -- what if the jobs go begging for want of workers with the needed education and skills?

For all his work on creating and shepherding the partnerships, Virginia Secretary of Technology Aneesh Chopra loves the challenge that comes with these more complex, stickier questions. The first part of the state's response is called plugGED In (notice how GED is imbedded in the name) which combines adult literacy, skills assessment and work force development.

Thanks to internal initiative, the commonwealth was able to stand the program up in only six months. But they did not do it alone, particularly in the area of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) where the education gap was particularly pronounced.

Virginia reached out to a nonprofit "open course" start-up, the CK Foundation, which describes itself this way on its Web site: 

Our mission is to reduce the cost of textbook materials for the K-12 market both in the US and worldwide, but also to empower teacher practitioners by generating or adapting content relevant to their local context. Using a collaborative and web-based compilation model that can manifest open resource content as an adaptive textbook, termed the "FlexBook", CK-12 intends to pioneer the generation and distribution of high quality, locally and temporally relevant, educational web texts. The content generated by CK-12 and the CK-12 community will serve both as source material for a student's learning and provide an adaptive environment that scaffolds the learner's journey as he or she masters a standards-based body of knowledge, while allowing for passion-based learning.

Generating and adapting content relevant to a local context was exactly what is plugGED

In needed. Chopra says they issued an open call for contributors and collaborators for their own untextbook that focused on the skills the commonwealth sought to develop. They received responses from all over the country, with would-be collaborators ranging from an 11th-grader to major research universities. The result: a custom open source physics flex book that will be available in February 2009, which Chopra proudly points out is the speed that the market needs and puts the conventional textbook industry to shame.

On the exit question, the panel offered a few random elements on the secrets to change that you can believe in -- and get done:

  • Be bold enough to take on entrenched bureaucracies (and have the necessary air cover from your appointing authority in place before you hit the streets).
  • Convince your people that their lives will be better.
  • Remember that attorneys answer the questions that they are asked -- "what are the barriers to doing this?" gets a very different answer than "how can we do this?"
  • Push innovation down as far as it can go in the organization. Innovation is embraced downstream when the people in the trenches believe it's theirs.
  • Create a war room to prosecute the change with military-style discipline -- but only build a war room if you are relentless about it and willing to stake your career on it.
  • Remember that innovation cannot come at the cost of consistent and reliable service delivery -- blocking and tackling on the front lines buys permission to keep working on the next new thing just behind the curtain.

There is a lot here to digest, and this summary may not have done their cases justice. Expect a return to some of these ideas in subsequent posts. And your thoughts are welcome and encouraged by adding your comments below.

Read more of Paul Taylor's blog, FastGov: Where Government is Going.

Read about New York Times writer David Sanger, who spoke at re:public VII on how Obama's presidency may quickly impact state and local governments.


Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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