The Struggle to Innovate When Resources Are Scarce

There are lessons for other cities and initiatives in Oakland's ongoing effort to create a public safety "dashboard."
November 19, 2013 AT 5:00 PM
By Scott Hugo  |  Contributor
Scott Hugo is a joint degree candidate at the Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

In the aftermath of a recession that saw deep and devastating cuts in municipal budgets, it is a struggle for many cities to simply keep up with demands for basic services. This context has proved pivotal in the struggling effort by Oakland, Calif., to develop a public safety "department dashboard." The successes and setbacks of the project could help inform similar efforts to innovate in difficult times.

In Oakland, as in most cities, key information surrounding public safety has been scattered across multiple web pages. It takes time for a resident to discover how to report a crime or determine which agency is responsible for illegal dumping. Furthermore, Oaklanders have had to contend with different sets of crime statistics containing significant disparities, undermining residents' ability to get a complete picture of the crime dynamics in their neighborhoods and in the community at large.

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Oakland is an engaged community with a strong commitment to community policing. Many residents take time out of their schedules to lead their local Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils (NCPCs) or attend Public Safety Committee meetings. NCPC leaders did their own statistical analyses to convey key information to their neighbors, but these were limited by the incomplete information available online.

To help resolve this informational gap, the city administrator and the police department co-sponsored a project to create the department dashboard. It was envisioned as a one-stop website where residents could easily access everything they needed regarding public safety: the latest crime statistics, key police-department information such as staffing levels, and links to relevant city agencies as well as citywide initiatives such as the city's Ceasefire crime-reduction program. A mapping interface would enable Oaklanders to quickly understand not only citywide crime trends but also what was going on in their own neighborhoods. The dashboard was my primary project as an Ash Center Summer Fellow.

The project received enthusiastic support from both the police department and the community. However, it soon ran into a number of obstacles, most of which stemmed from Oakland's limited resources. One particular difficulty was in gaining access to all the data that would be used for analysis and display, a step requiring support and coordination among a number of city agencies as well as divisions within the police department. Yet the city budget had been hit hard by the recession, forcing harsh personnel cuts; the police department went from a 2008 high of 837 sworn officers to its current 637. Information-technology services, a critical component of developing the dashboard, had been drastically slashed. The police department was in the midst of a major leadership and organizational transition, and yet at the same time it faced daily crises including a child abduction and the Trayvon Martin protests. In the end, it simply came down to priorities.

A potential innovation like the department dashboard couldn't compete for scarce time and resources with the day-to-day operations of the city. By the end of the summer, the project was making gradual progress but still was far from completion.

Three recommendations may strengthen future efforts to successfully execute an important but complicated initiative like Oakland's department dashboard. First, designate a dedicated advocate who can coordinate communication and maintain momentum, one who can stay focused on the project and not be pulled away by the pressing demands of each day. This is particularly relevant for cities like Oakland that are under sharp resource constraints.

Second, secure high-level support and guidance throughout the process. This would enable the fast-tracking of requests to other city agencies and help expedite the release of data, a problem that has proved to be a major bottleneck for Oakland's dashboard project.

Finally, a public campaign surrounding the initiative could create and sustain commitment. In the case of the dashboard, full public endorsement by city hall and the police department, along with regular involvement of residents, could encourage such a project's participants to see it through to completion.

Oakland has taken many steps to demonstrate its commitment to community policing but, as the city knows only too well, innovation requires an investment of time and resources. Getting a project like the department dashboard off the ground would demonstrate that key innovations are possible even when resources are scarce.