A Book Review of A New City O/S: The Power of Open, Collaborative and Distributed Governance

by Jul 10, 2019Governance

Melissa Schigoda

Melissa Schigoda is the Director of Performance and Accountability for the City of New Orleans and has her PhD in International Development from Tulane University where she studied the use of information in complex adaptive systems.


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Americans’ trust in government has hit historic lows, which is not surprising, considering government’s failure to address society’s increasingly complex problems. But Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis, former deputy mayor of New York City, and Harvard Professor; believes that recent societal and technological changes could power the transformation of government. His book, A New City O/S, co-authored with New York University professor and urban policy expert, Neil Kleiman, lauds the potential of open, collaborative, distributed governance to make this potential transformation a reality.

Internal Pivots: Cross-Agency Collaboration, Impact Measures and Employee Empowerment

Goldsmith and Kleiman provide city leaders with a framework of both internal and external pivots necessary to make the transformation to what they call the new operating system. As they are not the first to note, many local governments have internal struggles with their agencies operating in silos, excessive bureaucracy, compliance measures, and a rigid, top-down approach. The authors make the case for pivoting away from these ingrained tendencies and toward greater cross-agency collaboration, focus on impact measures, and empowerment of employees to make decisions on the ground in real-time.

New York City’s Pre-K for All

A stellar real-life example of these pivots provided by the book is New York City’s launch of Pre-K for All, which was able to provide universal pre-k for 50,000 four-year-old kids just six months after the program was first announced. How did they do it? Mayor Bill De Blasio was intentional about breaking down internal silos, as the authors encourage. He pulled together a multiagency working group that included his top leaders focused on technology, education, child welfare, construction, health, and mental health. Even the Fire Department played a part making sure that new education providers met safety codes.

The effort also involved hundreds of nonprofits, daycare centers, elementary schools, and other service providers. Each service provider was empowered with a clear understanding of basic program parameters, access to shared data systems, and an understanding of the impact measures that would be used to evaluate their success. In other words, they employed several of the strategies encouraged by Goldsmith and Kleiman in A New City O/S.

External Pivots: Networked Solutions, User-Centered Design and Speedy Response

In addition to the framework of internal pivots, Goldsmith and Kleiman provide a framework of external pivots focused on how local governments relate to their residents. Gone are the days of “city hall is the monopolist of information,” “government is arranged for its own convenience,” and government is “the sole producer of public value.” The authors claim that the new operating system will involve pivots toward networked solutions and government as an integrator of value from a variety of public, private, and nonprofit organizations. Additionally, it will involve a pivot toward improving the user experience for residents and a focus on quickly meeting residents’ needs.

Happy Customers in Indiana and Atlanta

The book highlights examples of how local governments are already applying principles of user-centered design and government that acts in time. Before launching their “Customer Choices” program, visiting the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles was an inconvenient experience for residents to say the least. The new program dramatically improved customer satisfaction rates by allowing residents to access their services through partner dealerships or online, schedule appointments for in person visits, and monitor wait times. To improve the speed of its permitting process for residents, Atlanta revised their workflows and the performance targets for which staff were held accountable. As a result, they decreased wait times and doubled customer satisfaction.

Problem-Solving Public Servants in Allegheny and Memphis

Goldsmith and Kleiman also provide examples of local governments that have succeeded in empowering their employees to become data-driven, problem-solvers. Allegheny County, for instance, created a data warehouse that provides case workers responding to abuse allegations with a comprehensive understanding of a family’s previous involvement with the child welfare, mental health, and criminal justice systems, as well as real-time updates about significant events like school suspensions and births into homes with previous abuse cases. Memphis used a gain-sharing strategy to reward employees for improvement ideas that saved the city money. Cities around the country, including San Francisco and Denver, are running employee training programs focused on process improvement, data analysis, and the use of new technologies.

Hurdles to Government Transformation

While the tone of A New City O/S is largely optimistic, it does acknowledge numerous challenges that cities will face in the transition to the new operating system. Several ring particularly true. The transition to the new operating system will require strong leadership and the abilities to “…articulate a rousing vision, oversee operational detail and recruit top-level teams.” Much easier said than done, especially when many leaders spend the majority of their time split between politics and crisis management. Many cities struggle to find even small amounts of funding for new initiatives, hire talent, and procure basic goods and services. Transforming government to the point where collaboration between city departments with outside organizations and productive resident engagement becomes the norm can seem like a pipe dream.

On the other hand, one can see how addressing these challenges in tandem could create a virtuous cycle of change. Ultimately, this is the potential of open, collaborative, and distributed governance: its advancement, even in small ways, helps open the door for further transformation down the line. Strategic investment in process improvements coupled with technology improvements that produce high-quality open data for performance monitoring, for instance, would make it easier to leverage outside organizations for more complex analytics and free up time for deeper engagement with residents. Perhaps, with enough momentum and success stories, cities will be able to solve the core crisis of trust in American government.

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