Why Every Local Government Needs a New Operating System

Technological innovation on a piece-by-piece basis isn't enough. More fundamental change is needed.
April 24, 2018
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By Neil Kleiman  |  Contributor
A clinical professor at New York University

Apps are easy and fun. You download a wondrous new application to your mobile device that makes life easier to navigate. But a system update: Now, that's tedious -- even a nuisance.

Local-government officials have been on an app binge of late. For the past five years or so, cities and counties everywhere have used technology and advanced data techniques to establish incredible new local government applications that make governments' interaction with residents more pleasant and effective in a multitude of ways, from reporting the locations of gaping potholes to easily paying a parking ticket.

But as municipal leaders continue to use technology to improve services, there is a need -- no matter how difficult -- to rethink the basic underlying operating systems of government. If a pipe is starting to leak, it's not enough to put a bucket under it; it's time to fix the plumbing. In our book, A New City O/S: The Power of Open, Collaborative and Distributed Governance, Stephen Goldsmith and I detail how public leaders can fundamentally reshape government -- update its operating system -- to support consistent, jurisdiction-wide innovation. Successful efforts by public leaders across the country show how to make it a reality.

At its core, a new O/S is enterprise change; it is about transforming the entire organization, not just parts of it. It takes the many wondrous innovations of recent years and builds on them, fitting them together as building blocks in service of a new approach to public-sector service delivery. Assessing local success is critical, as there is no one city or county that has fully updated its operating system. That makes the task seem daunting, but many municipalities have established pieces of it.

Let's start with why cities and counties need -- and are well-positioned -- to establish a new O/S.

Society, communications, private companies and individuals have all changed their behavior. For the most part, government has not. Officials need to do more than advance policy through tweets or incessant posts on Facebook. They have to do something far more involved, fundamentally pivoting government from a walled-off, tech-phobic place to one that is far more open, collaborative and nimble. In many ways, this is an issue of trust: Residents not only want to understand their local government, they also want to engage with it and have services tailored to their needs.

Innovations in isolation can distract from needed larger reform. Often "project innovation" (improvement in a specific area) is mistaken for "enterprise innovation" (systemically reforming core government functions). While project innovation is often quite beneficial, it can distract officials from taking on more-systemic challenges. As one local administrator in Philadelphia told us, "We had some great success, but now we're trying not to have innovation labeled as the 'cool thing.' We don't want innovation to occur at the fringes of the bell curve. In the past, the innovation folks were on the edges of how the city runs and not changing the core of how the city functions." A Boston administrator lamented that the proliferation of you-text-and-we-fix apps "can pull focus away from more long-range and underlying issues."

Taking on big, systemic change is incredibly hard, but fortunately local governments don't have to go it alone. An unprecedented wave of investments and initiatives by foundations and universities is providing flexible funds, data infrastructure and policy depth that is allowing public leaders to make bold leaps forward. In Detroit, for example, the Kresge Foundation funded a thorough and community-informed rebuilding plan that is helping to drive recovery efforts in the Motor City. And New York University established the country's first data analytic memorandum of understanding with local government when the administration of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg designated the university as its data-analytics partner.

These are among the crucial first steps local governments are taking as the most forward-looking of them move beyond the app binge toward a new operating system. Clearly the challenges governments face are going to grow more formidable. Meeting those challenges is going to require fundamental change for local governments everywhere, and the faster it happens the better.