Many local government tech leaders have unique takes on how to incorporate innovation into their organizations. But as the examples of Shreveport, La., and Boulder, Colo., demonstrate, their approaches do have some overlap.
Shreveport, La., Mayor Adrian Perkins, who recently completed his first year in office, has been the driving force behind IT innovation in Louisiana’s third-largest city, fostering unorthodox approaches to modernization. One of Perkins’ first acts was to hire a chief technology officer from the private sector who had experience in innovating — and innovating fast.
After joining the city following several years in private software development, Keith Hanson spent his first six months reorganizing an IT department of about 30 people. He created a special projects team, which includes a specialist in data, GIS, IoT and social media. The group is tasked with completing one project per quarter to optimize city government or improve services for the city’s roughly 192,000 residents.
With successes behind him, like a recent special data project that found $2 million tied up in inactive open purchase orders, Hanson said he’s looking to expand Shreveport’s capabilities in a budget-conscious way.
“Now, my big initiative for this quarter is to popularize what we are doing, which is basically creating a bunch of protype sensors, open-sourcing them, open-schematizing them and putting out all the documentation required for any city to build these things,” Hanson told Government Technology.
Boulder, Colo., which has about 85,000 fewer people but 20 more IT staffers than Shreveport, underwent a similar reorganization after Deloitte-veteran Julia Richman was promoted to the position of chief innovation and technology officer. The work of Boulder’s Innovation Team garnered recognition in the 2019 Digital Cities Survey from the Center for Digital Government* that highlighted their work using public-facing metrics to closely monitor outputs from various city departments.
“When I joined the department, we had a very hierarchical organizational structure that I think inhibited communication, individual leadership and, also, decision-making,” Richman said. “I changed that around really quick and flattened out the leadership structure, which enhanced the transparency into what leadership positions were. We built new structures of communicating with our staff and have really focused on continuous improvements.”
Examining Boulder and Shreveport together offers an interesting glimpse into a growing trend in local government IT — mid-sized cities turning to private-sector expertise to inject an innovation mindset into cities that can help lower costs and increase results.
ORGANIZATIONS BUILT ON INGENUITY
With a median household income of around $38,000, Shreveport doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room in the city budget to fund IT developments in the traditional sense. Instead of going through the procurement process, Hanson said he reviewed how he could use his operating budget to purchase the necessary equipment to test open-source technology.
He said he and his team are starting with something tangible to residents: helping them find their lost dog with the use of open-source sensors mounted on utility poles. The idea is that dog owners can purchase a low-cost dog tag with Bluetooth technology that pings a sensor as the dog passes by. Hanson said he’s looking to deploy a proof of concept by April 1.
“What I’m finding, no matter how astute someone is, until they hear a visceral example of how they’re going to be affected … they don’t really care or worse, they may misunderstand what it is I’m trying to do,” Hanson said.
While Boulder has experimented with open source, Richman said, it’s not the city’s preferred development method. But the city has a very similar view on innovation known as fast failure.
“Some of our core innovation principles are around fast failure, which really gets people out of the mindset of ‘I’m going to screw this up and so I don’t want to try,’” Richman said. “Instead it’s, ‘You’ll probably screw it up and so you should definitely try and you’re going to have to try more than once.’ Really just changing that narrative has been, I think, tremendously important.”
This shift in the culture of Boulder’s IT has yielded solutions which have saved the city money and increased transparency throughout the organization, she said.
MEASURING CITYWIDE PROGRESS WITH IT
To stay on track with Mayor Perkins’ quarterly goals, Hanson installed a software system mapping how his work and the accomplishments of his staff stack up. The system impressed the mayor so much so that he rolled it out to all Shreveport department directors at the beginning of this year. Any user can click on a goal and see its entire “goal hierarchy” and how it aligns with the mayor’s vision, he said.
“Our first year we got our legs under us and figured out what government was like, etc.,” Hanson said. “Now we’re getting really organized around strategic initiatives, as opposed to what I find most governments doing: putting the fires out constantly.”
He said the goal system will help sharpen the focus of the departments, encouraging more proactive approaches for common problems or time-intensive tasks, such as using a textbot to turn a resident’s water back on or process a payment extension, thereby clearing the queue of the Water and Sewerage Department’s customer service line.
In Boulder, Richman said the use of an employee-facing dashboard is vital in determining the impact of IT’s service quality. There’s an overall review of the dashboard metrics each quarter to track trends and make adjustments, but the data is also reviewed on a weekly basis as a form of quality control, which has led to an reduction in IT ticket times by as much as 60 percent.
“I would say the culture in the department feels really different and I think it’s just by opening the aperture and allowing a lot of different points of leadership,” Richman said. “I would say the same is true in terms of innovation in the city. It’s one of the city’s core values and we’ve taken a very grass-roots approach focusing on training, techniques, and making resources available to people so that they can do their own experiments in their own areas of work.”
*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company.