Small (City) Pieces, Loosely Joined

Experiments in stitching together civic technology for local governments

I grew up in rural Southern Illinois. Centralia the town is called. Population 13,000. It’s taken on many lives through its history; beginning first as a railway hub, then a well of natural resource, and later as a small, yet productive manufacturing base for the region. When I was growing up, a nearby highway was built that put town miles off the main interstate, and soon the factories began to close. Growth stalled, and population waned. Today, the town remains a primarily service-based economy, and for recreation, entertainment, or growth, you have to look more at St. Louis, MO, the area’s largest metro — and that’s where my family now spends nearly every weekend. We look to the bigger city nearby.

What’s the right model for local government civic innovation?

Just as important as any technology is the infrastructure in place to sustain it: human, financial, and technical. When approaching this question — “what do we do?” —we need to have clarity on the systems and structures a city needs to have in place (in-house or not) for sustainable, meaningful innovation. Fortunately, over the past few years, we have seen a number of models emerge for governments keen on leveraging modern technology and modern approaches.

The British Model: Government Digital Service (GDS)

A few years back, in the wake of a colossal fiasco of their own, the British government created a technology unit charged with avoiding the next one. The Government Digital Service (GDS) was born, and quickly they began doing much more than just putting out fires. Today, GDS houses 500+ technologists, and has built a brand that it’s been called the “best startup in Europe you can’t invest in,” beating out Silicon Roundabout companies for talent. And for good reason. GDS’s work on, the government’s centralized digital interface merits applause not only for its lovely, user-centric design, but also for their remarkable ability to bring both central agencies and local governments into the fold. (In fact, Mike Bracken, the Director of GDS, received a standing ovation at CfA’s last Summit.) As a model for innovation within central government, GDS is the standard-bearer.

Our cities are more independent and muscular, number in the tens of thousands, and hold responsibility for core service delivery.

Stateside, though, the challenge is more complex, particularly for cities. We don’t have the same manner of government as our transatlantic friends. Our cities are more independent and muscular, number in the tens of thousands, and hold responsibility for core service delivery. Then there are our harsh fiscal realities: small towns, particularly ones with shrinking economic bases, struggle just to maintain current services levels, while citizen demands increase, let alone build out modern technology teams. How could Centralia build its own GDS? And the next city? And the city after that? More broadly, however, an American system where each city was staffing its own distinct product teams seems rare at best, duplicative at worst. Part of the magic of modern technology is that it can scale fast; let’s not ask our cities to recreate the wheel.

Creating a Space for Experimentation: Chief [X] Officers

Many cities have been able to establish high-level technology leadership: Chief Technology Officers, Chief Innovation Officers, and Offices of New Urban Mechanics. These models not only support the smart use of technology, but also tend to drive a broader culture within City Hall around innovation. These positions, however, often structurally lack some of the resources, in particular the human capital, to invest deeply into product or technology development, a la GDS. Many of the most successful and creative cities have had to lean on a mix of partners (e.g. universities, foundations, or volunteer corps) to create the tech they need. For instance, the City of Philadelphia’s Department of New Urban Mechanics is working on procurement reform through the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies; the city of San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation launched its Entrepreneurship-in-Residence program to turn city’s startup scene loose on civic challenges; and famously (and possibly apocryphally) Chicago’s former CTO engaged a team of volunteers to redeploy some Code for America applications, plying them with pizza and beer. Under budget constraints, you have to beg, borrow, and steal innovation.

Under budget constraints, you have to beg, borrow, and steal innovation.

A Marketplace / Component Strategy

A successful and respected venture capitalist, Mary Meeker each year publishes a fascinating summary of internet trends. This year, she highlighted a strategy many consumer apps are taking: moving from multi-use apps to single-purpose. They are “shattering themselves into pieces.” Facebook split off into Messenger and now Slingshot; Foursquare now has Swarm; and Google throughout has taken a multi-app strategy. This uncoupling creates a streamlined user experience for a specific purpose, while taking advantage of common logins, etc, to make on-boarding easy.

a strategy many consumer apps are taking:
moving from multi-use apps to single-purpose

Facebook could splinter itself into a dozen little pieces, because it had the identify infrastructure (your login) to make it work, and the product strategy to make it make sense. Built at hack-a-thons, contests, and fellowships, civic apps continue to proliferate, but these tools lack that kind of connective tissue. What’s interesting now is that there are efforts to piece them together into a greater whole.

The confluence of these two trends — the development of reusable open components and the emergence of civic startups—presents a compelling opportunity for cities thinking about changing their approach to technology.

Pulling these together

Indeed, it’s way too early yet to signal any approach as the approach for American cities, and I suspect we’ll hear more of a remix than a chorus. Bigger cities may take on a GDS-style approach when they have the budget and talent; others may continue to appoint senior leaders to drive forward their innovation agenda; and certainly the mosaic of reusable civic technology will continue to grow richer. These aren’t zero sum. In fact, they would surely benefit from each other. CIOs should be procuring civic startups, and city tech shops should be building new components. That’s the elegance underlying the components strategy: by looking at various pieces of civic technology as components as a broader architecture, then new civic innovations (wherever they come from) can enhance the greater whole.

City Digital Services Prototype

Consider the city of Chicago’s slate of digital services (well, some of them):

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
This site on Tabletop, Sheetsee, and Google Spreadsheets, making it simple to add a new city to the map and create a unified digital presence. Adding a city and managing its data is literally as simple as filling out a Google Form or commenting on a row of a Google Spreadsheet. That means a city could spin up their own simple page (like the Chicago example below) in seconds.

Focus on what matters

My operating principle was to focus on what matters (at least in my view). Instead of a litany of services and links, can we identify the top 3-4 pieces of information and the top 3-4 services cities offer that citizens want?

Image for post
This is a city-specific view of the Digital Service Center Chicago, which links to the relevant apps (as pictured above). For instance, the 211 link goes to PurpleBinder Chicago.

Keep It Simple

The other guiding principle was to minimize the burden on the city. What’s the least they could do? In this case, city only has to build a scaffolding. It’s just simple HTML, Javascript, and css that bring together the various other sites (e.g. a 311 app) into a simple experience. (Truly simple: at the core, it just a set of links.) Just by adding links to its existing digital services to a spreadsheet, the city is added to the site, and gets a city-specific mobile-optimized Digital Services Center (like this one for Oakland).

Image for post

City-to-City Comparison

With those two pieces in place—a list of the core digital services and a simple way to present them on a per-city basis—I decided to start comparing city-to-city:

Image for post
The progress bar indicates how many out of the eight listed services are available in that city. Do note that this dataset was created quickly, and just by me, and likely misses a number of digital services.

What’s Possible with a Components Approach

Admittedly, this was a very loose way to join the various pieces. Smarter, deeper integrations are needed around data, identify, and design. The point of this prototype, though, was less really to build anything specifically that a city could use — though that’s always fun — but instead to give us all something to look at and consider what’s possible.

Ladders of engagement & the “Civic Upsell”

When you start to see these services put next to each other, you start to think about the connections between them. The notion of an “upsell” is commonplace in retail, online and off. You’ll see it on Amazon after you’ve added something to your cart: consider what other books a customer bought, or think about pairing that new device with a accessory or support package. This same thinking could be applied to the civic space. If we think of cities less as various departments, but one institution with various offerings, then we can create “civic upsells” from one service to another.

Image for post
Note: the buttons for check eligibility etc pictured here are design mocks, not currently live in the social services finder app.
Image for post
The services, when considered from a user centered approach, could link one to another.

digital services can be organized to enable a “ladder of engagement”

In this way, digital services can be organized to enable a ladder of engagement— clear and simple pathways to deepen engagement by following one activity with another.

Towards standardized discovery

Government usually has the reverse problem that consumer apps are trying to solve with the single-app strategy: there are already too many websites for a government. In fact, it got so bad the federal government had to put a freeze on new top level domains. Cities have a similar problem, and even now as better, more compelling digital services emerge, there is no common way to find a service city-to-city. Top level domains span the gambit (e.g. Oakland’s url is, New Orleans is, and even with widely popular services like an open data portal, there’s little consistency. That means if you wanted to compare one city’s data portal to another, or better yet, their data, it’s next to impossible.

Opportunities for new efforts / civic startups

Seeing the prototype Digital Services Center, you may think that there’s only room for eight startups in this space. (One for each of those little icons.) Or if not, you might at least come to the conclusion that there’s only room for eight in one city. I would argue that this approach if fact opens the door to even more entrepreneurship — and may help even with the pace of adoption.

Image for post
Image for post
Basic Results from Social Services Finder
Image for post
Results from Social Service Finder with links to other services from civic startups

Simply put, each of those buttons is an opportunity for a civic startup.

I was once told, “Good writing is giving your reader a context within which to think.” Those of us working in the civic technology field talk a lot about this notion, “Government as a platform,” and I wonder if that quote—broadly understood—strikes at the heart of what that means: creating contexts through our public institutions within which others can think, create, tinker, and make. The art of stewardship is doing the least to enable the most. As we move forward with our work recoding our cities, context will become increasingly vital; context for citizens to understand how to be part of the work of government; context for entrepreneurs to identify ways to make that work even better; and context for our cities themselves to deliver digital services we can celebrate.

“Ok, so what do we do?”

There’s a sad irony to this entire endeavor for me. My impulse was to find a way to help my own city, Centralia, but to prototype the notion I again had to look to the bigger cities of St. Louis and Chicago. Fact is that those digital components just don’t exist in my hometown yet, and though I tried for hours trying to deploy open source applications to flesh out a Centralia Digital Services Center, I was left wanting. Either it took too long to deploy the code, or the applications just didn’t apply here. (There is no public transportation system.) I return then to the earlier refrain: it’s early yet.

Written by

tech optimist and political phil nerd. hacker, writer & maker: fmr CDO, @lamayorsoffice; @google; @codeforamerica.

Get the Medium app