California Civic Innovation Project Report Released

Back in March, Rachel Burstein of the New America Foundation wrote about some of the findings from their research on civic innovation in California. The full report is now available for download, and Rachel has given us permission to repost her announcement from

Whether you work at the Department of Agriculture, the California State Treasury Office or the Planning Division of the City of San Jose, you have probably encountered the following scenario. You are tasked with solving a problem—say, how to encourage those eligible for food stamps to take advantage of the program, or how to eliminate a sizeable part of the public safety budget without also reducing costs—and you want to investigate possible solutions systematically. But you don’t know what approaches have been tried, the effectiveness of such approaches, or the applicability of those solutions to the specific situation your department and constituencies are facing.

What do you do? Perhaps you begin with a basic Google search. You find some examples that seem like they might relevant. Perhaps you read an article about a town government in another state that consolidated its police department with that of another community, thereby saving millions of dollars a year. The city manager and members of the City Council have good things to say about the arrangement, but you have trouble finding information about obstacles the town leadership faced in implementing the consolidation. Plus, given the difficulties you’ve had collaborating with a neighboring town on a recycling program and what you know about a nearby city’s approach to policing, you’re not sure if consolidation of departments is a good option for your town.

What’s your next step? If you’re ambitious, maybe you find contact information for the city manager in the city that tried the consolidation strategy and ask him about difficulties he faced in the project. Or maybe you send a query to a professional association list-serv asking if anyone can direct you to resources on similar local projects. Or perhaps you bring up the topic at the next meeting of the city managers group to which you belong.

The problem with any of these scenarios is that you have gleaned only limited, generic, or second-hand information from either unverifiable sources or from sources with limited understanding of how the solution will operate in the circumstances you face. For certain types of information—say, creating a new form for renting your agency’s facilities, or determining what icons to use to designate recycling containers—this may not be a problem. But when it comes to government solving tough problems through innovative approaches, strong personal networks are key.

This finding is one of many found in a new report released by the New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation Project. The report summarizes survey and interview data on perceptions of, obstacles to, and motivations for innovation in local government. It assesses how knowledge sharing between locales promotes innovation, and the particular importance of personal networks in facilitating effective knowledge sharing around innovation.

Among the report’s major findings are the following:

  • Internal organizational or managerial changes to improve service delivery while reducing costs—not e-government, public-private partnerships, or civic engagement projects—are the most important innovations adopted in cities and counties, according to those who work in local government.
  • Resource constraints both motivate innovation and serve as an obstacle to effective knowledge sharing and the potential for innovation diffusion in local government.
  • Pressure from elected officials and legislative mandates are more significant drivers than community input for city managers and county administrators when it comes to adopting new approaches.
  • By far, personal contacts—especially those in geographically proximate communities—are the most valuable source of knowledge for city and county administrators investigating and implementing new approaches.
  • Professional associations are more valuable as knowledge sources for innovation than the individual tools and services (e.g. list-servs, professional development opportunities, webinars, etc.) that such groups offer.
    Personal channels are the most typical way that local government staffers share knowledge about innovation with colleagues in other communities.
  • There are wide divides between urban and rural communities when it comes to perceptions of civic innovation and the ways in which knowledge is acquired and shared.

We hope to start a conversation among various stakeholders at all levels of government in order to develop specific recommendations deriving from this research. What can professional associations do to enlarge and strengthen the personal networks of their members? What can government managers do to communicate their strategies—successes, failures, and aborted projects—to others faced with similar problems? What types of institutional support need to be in place to facilitate such changes? These are the questions that we hope to begin to answer in the coming months. We hope that you will be part of the conversation!

In the meantime, you can download the full report here. We look forward to hearing from you.

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Rethinking Cost and Technology in Local Government

Rachel Burstein is a Research Associate at the New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation Project.

Technology provides tremendous tools for local government leaders hoping to better serve community needs. Consider the efficiencies created by online payment systems, or the potential for community improvements through the publication of open data sets. Unfortunately, however, local government staffers often don’t recognize technology as important or valuable. In order to change these attitudes, technologists, citizens and others will need to articulate the value of tech to fulfilling central governmental functions.

The New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation Project recently concluded a survey of city managers and county administrators in California. We found that of a list of ten motivations for innovation, reducing costs was by far the most important factor (Table 1). City managers and county administrators do not regard inadequate technological infrastructure as a noteworthy obstacle for innovation. Instead, financial considerations are judged to be much more important (Table 2). So, what gives? Given that there is often a correlation between cost and technology, are we to assume that local government administrators simply don’t regard technology as important to the innovation process? Or is something else going on?

The answer may be found in four different ways. First, although departmental heads may see things differently, local government administrators do not generally view innovation as dependent on technology. We saw that a majority of respondents at both the county and city level identified shared services and compliance with new legislative requirements as the most important new approaches in their jurisdictions in the last five years. Some of these projects may involve technology, but initiatives that required technological infrastructure—an open government project, or a new town website, for example—were mentioned in only a handful of responses.

Second, community resources and vision have a lot to do with how technology is integrated into an administrator’s understanding of innovation. The economic downturn in California has put local governments in a tough spot. But the pain is not felt equally across municipalities. Our interviews reveal significant divides among different types of local governments. While administrators in communities with greater resources report that they prioritize programs in which technology is a key component, smaller and poorer communities are far less concerned with adopting new technologies. And of those cities and counties who report having limited capacity to adopt new approaches, the vast majority are rural, and none are urban.

Third, lack of concern over the adequacy of technological infrastructure may have more to do with the fact that local government leaders don’t believe they have the time or human resources to use technology effectively. Cost may not be the key consideration in these cases. Our survey reveals that a lack of time for employees to implement the solution, lack of qualified or skilled personnel, and lack of sufficient managerial capabilities are all much more important than adequate technological infrastructure (Table 2).

Finally, the technological solutions that many local governments pursue don’t actually cost all that much. An assistant manager in a large city in California told us that while much of the opposition to transparency measures adopted in his city originally centered around financial concerns, in fact, the new policies of posting meeting announcements or contracts online cost the city very little.

These survey results give us some clues into how local government officials perceive the relationship between cost and technology. But they also show that for many city and county leaders, technology just isn’t that important when viewed alongside other ways of responding to community or organizational needs. Convincing them otherwise will require reframing the value of technology to show how tools can meet needs that cities have already identified as important. We also need to show the affordability of certain kinds of technology and how cash-strapped cities and counties can embrace those solutions.

Table 1: Motivations for Innovations in Local Government

In general, how important are the following reasons for adopting new approaches in your city or county?
(Very Important, Moderately Important, Slightly Important, Not Important, Not Applicable; these descriptions were assigned numeric equivalents on a 4 point scale in order to generate a ranked list of mean responses).

Table 2: Obstacles to Innovation in Local Government

Over the course of the last five years, how significant has each of the following factors been in your choice to use acquired knowledge in decision-making or your decision to implement and sustain new approaches?
(Very Important, Moderately Important, Slightly Important, Not Important, Not Applicable; these descriptions were assigned numeric equivalents on a 4 point scale in order to generate a ranked list of mean responses).

Note: The tables in this post summarizes data from a survey conducted by the New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation of county administrators and city managers in California from November 2012 through January 2013. The sample size was 78, comprised of 24 county administrators and their deputies who belong to the California State Association of Counties (CSAC); 34 city managers and their deputies who belong to the California division of the International City/County Management Association (Cal-ICMA); and 20 city managers and their deputies who do not belong to Cal-ICMA.

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Social Media Recommendations for Public Transit Providers

Sarah M. Kaufman is a researcher and Assistant Adjunct Professor at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management.

Social media networks give transportation providers access to large numbers of people simultaneously and without a fee. The NYU Rudin Center’s new report, “How Social Media Moves New York, Part 2,” based on earlier findings (see “Twitter’s Importance to Transportation,” October 2012) recommends social media policies for transportation providers seeking to inform, engage, and motivate their customers.

The goals of social media in transportation are to inform (alert riders of a situation), motivate (to opt for an alternate route), and engage (amplify the message to their friends and neighbors). Marketing messages are also essential to inform riders about new services, and to be compelling enough to retain the follower base that will help amplify important information. Our study of tweets by transportation providers throughout the New York region during the summer of 2012 showed a wide disparity in proportions of service information, engagement and marketing posts between different agencies:

Appropriate timing of messages alters the ideal proportions, and can vastly enhance a transportation provider’s follower base—e.g., providing essential delay information during rush hour—or turn customers off entirely—e.g., over-posting marketing messages during rush hour. Based on the research in this report, the following chart shows recommended proportions of social media posts:

More generally, to communicate effectively using social media, transportation providers’ online presence must be:

  • Accessible: Easily discovered through multiple channels and targeted information campaigns
  • Informative: Disseminating service information at rush hour and with longer-form discussions on blogs as needed
  • Engaging: Responding directly to customers, marketing new services, and building community
  • Responsive: Soliciting and internalizing feedback and self-evaluating in a continuous cycle

To the last point, a large portion of responsiveness is accountability. In our analysis, we found a major discrepancy in the use of “thanks” and “sorry” in the Twitter feeds of private transportation providers (specifically, American Airlines and JetBlue) versus public agencies. Specifically, the airlines apologized far more than public transportation providers for delays and cancellations: in the two months studied, American Airlines wrote “sorry” and its synonyms 3,949 times; PATH, 62 times; Metro-North, 39 times; NJ Transit, 25 times; and the others, three or fewer times. Similarly, while customer engagement dominated both airlines’ Twitter accounts (85% on average), demonstrating their need to be constantly responsive to and direct with customers, public transportation providers communicated less directly with their customers (34%). These patterns indicate a universal orientation toward customer service throughout the private companies, which must earn and maintain customer loyalty. However, public transportation providers, which often have a monopoly on customers, likely do not feel the same need to focus on them.

In contrast, the public transportation providers accepted ‘thanks’ at a greater rate than they issued apologies (on average 17.7 “thanks” versus 12.6 “sorry”). This pattern was most pronounced in NYC Transit’s feed, which posted 26 “thanks” and variants, but only 3 “sorry” and variants, and NJ Transit, which posted 73 thanks and 25 apologies. See the chart below for all Sorry/Thanks comparisons. This diversion may result from the typically thankless work of transit management, making compliments especially meaningful.

Instances of “Sorry” and “Thanks” in Tweets

Accountability, like accurate information and direct engagement, is essential in building trust between transportation agencies and their customers. While accessibility, information, engagement and responsiveness compose the four pillars of transportation and social media, the human facet is essential to the online presence, and displaying one requires a cultural shift from the pre-social media press releases and opaque, one-way information streams.

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