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The Time is Right for Civic Innovation (Opinion)

Confluence of technology, design, innovation and leadership can break down even the most entrenched state bureaucracies.

by Will Semmes / March 31, 2015

There’s a revolution happening right now, and California state government needs it badly. That revolution is the civic innovation revolution, which is the process of using new technologies and design methods to bring efficiency to government and power to citizens. The civic innovation revolution was born from massive productivity gains in the private sector leveraged by a burgeoning civic technology industry that is already bringing those gains to some governments, mostly at the city level.

The success of this revolution in California, and in other states and the federal government, will depend upon a new generation of people who are trained, willing and able to bring change to even the most sclerotic of bureaucracies. To prepare this new generation, we created a first-of-its-kind Masters in Business Administration that specializes in teaching students what they need to know to lead the civic innovation revolution both inside and outside government. The new MBA in Civic Innovation at California College of the Arts in San Francisco will teach future leaders how to combine design, innovation, leadership and technology to bring our government into the 21st Century.

We expect many of our graduates to answer Accela CEO Maury Blackman’s recent, valiant call to serve on strike forces of the US Digital Service (USDS) and a future California Digital Service - which, I agree, should be established now. The USDS was created out of the ashes of the debacle to match private sector technology and productivity with government agencies in need of change. Maury called on civic-minded technologists to lend their expertise to the people already in government who are trying to change the status quo and create the conditions necessary for the civic innovation revolution to take root.

Unfortunately there’s a lot blocking this revolution inside much of our government, especially in California state agencies. Fundamentally, some do not seem willing to change — hierarchical “siloed” bureaucracies often just try to survive as management fads and political interests come and go. Entire organization charts are arranged to accommodate individuals and civil service requirements, not to perform functions. The inertia against change is compounded by archaic civil service rules and union protection, complex procurement regulations that put the fabled Gordian knot to shame, low rates of data literacy among government workers and politicians, and few programming and app development skills in most agencies. Recently, the California Bureau of State Audits reported a series of large IT project failures — costing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars — which indicate that the problems are serious and systemic.

How is it possible that the NSA can track my every move and listen to every phone conversation I have, yet we still have to wait in line at the DMV, and government agencies just 100 miles from Silicon Valley can’t get important IT projects done? And then, on March 18, California was graded an F for financial transparency. So, as taxpayers, we can’t begin to make sense of it from the outside. And the California Legislature gets similar grades for its own transparency.

Thankfully, there are people in California state government now who are working hard to change the inertia and open data to the public so the revolution can take place there and scale. What we realized is that they need help, and it is our duty as citizens to respond.  

When governments embrace civic innovation, it can change everything — costs go down, speed goes up, quality improves and new information is uncovered every day.  With the revolution in place, public services can respond to evolving needs in flexible and predictive ways — everyone wins. 

I was excited by Maury’s rallying cry and was reminded of my own call to join the civic innovation revolution when I was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to be co-Director of the California Performance Review in late 2003.

The California Performance Review (CPR) was the Governor’s sweeping assessment of California state government productivity and a bold plan for reform. To implement CPR, we brought in 250 senior civil servants from around California state government, selected from more than 3,000 applicants from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. At CPR, we knew the political risks we were taking, so we worked non-stop for seven months and published a huge document with hundreds of comprehensive recommendations for reform and bold ideas to re-arrange the way government was organized so that form would follow function. Yet because there was, and remains, so much stacked up against significant change, CPR was DOA.  While some of the recommendations were implemented over time, the real excitement for reform, the kind that comes with societal changes and major events, had left Sacramento. There was something missing in our recommendations and at the time we didn’t know what it was.

After CPR, I served in other departments where I saw hundreds of experienced civil servants working tirelessly against a lot of odds just to do their jobs. This frustrated me to no end — it seemed like government was set up to make it difficult to do the simplest things. It was only after I left state government in 2009 that I was able to see it from the outside and realize what was missing — civic technology and the energy and possibilities generated by the civic innovation revolution.

It’s hard to believe that eleven years ago, when we published the CPR report, the technology we now take for granted either did not exist or we in state government were unaware of it at the time. The first iPhone wasn’t launched until 2007, AirBNB didn’t start until 2008, and Code for America wasn’t established until 2009. Ultimately, the technology we needed to make CPR a reality just wasn’t available to us. Back then we saw the possibilities with Adobe forms and large Enterprise Resource Planning systems but, most of the time, state government was not able to translate those possibilities into regular practice. The huge IT failures we are seeing in state government today are solutions that were designed and budgeted five or more years ago. For perspective, five years ago, Uber was barely a year old, and it was called UberCab.

This is where timing comes in. The civic innovation revolution is happening now because of rapid technology development and a newfound willingness to look at old problems in new and creative ways. This timing is precisely why it is imperative that California state government establish its own digital service, and it’s precisely why the timing of CCA’s MBA in Civic Innovation is so important. 

I know there is a generation of people who desperately want to make a difference but don’t know how. When I got out of college I wanted to make a difference so I became an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Through my military service, I felt like I earned my citizenship. Yet military service is not for everyone. I believe low voter turnout is directly related to the fact that we don’t see ourselves as participants in our own governance — and we just don’t know how to get involved. But that is changing!  The timing is finally right to bring it all together — design, innovation, leadership and technology. The civic innovation revolution is making it all possible. With open data from government and civic technology, people are building the tools to participate and improve our democracy.  

In Officer Candidate School, I wondered which of my classmates would go on to make a difference. With CCA’s MBA in Civic Innovation, I wonder which one of our graduates will be a future director of a California Digital Service? Which one of our graduates will go on to run for office and serve the civic innovation revolution from the Oval Office or Congress or City Hall? I can’t wait to find out.

Will Semmes is associate chairman of the California College of the Arts’ Design MBA program where he is managing the development of the new MBA in Civic Innovation. He is founder of Bellwether Partners, a government relations consulting firm, and is the former chief deputy director of the California Department of General Services.

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