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Local Government and the Need for Speed

Project delays and slow bureaucratic processes are costly for constituents, businesses and governments themselves. What’s needed is a culture of urgency.

A clock
Most unexpectedly, I received a clock without any numbers as a New Year’s gift. Instead of numbers, the clock’s face had only four words, all of which proclaimed “NOW.” The gift came from Brad Keywell, a ”serial entrepreneur” who was a co-founder of Groupon and, more recently, of Uptake Technologies, a provider of AI-powered fleet management software. Alongside the clock was a small book Brad had written, titled The Story of Time. Every local government should receive such a gift, to be reminded of not just about the story but of the costs of time.

Local government as a gatekeeper is often the timekeeper. Its actions determine when a restaurant can open, when a building or kitchen can be remodeled, when plumbers can get their professional licenses, and on and on. At a recent conference on infrastructure we hosted at Harvard with the Knight Foundation, Jill Jamieson, an expert on infrastructure finance and public-private partnerships, pointed out another aspect of time: the cost of not starting and finishing a capital project in a timely way.

She noted that construction cost inflation over three years has eroded the spending power of infrastructure dollars by over 50 percent in many sectors, making the point that delaying critical infrastructure investments increases the fiscal burden on communities. Delays in permitting, designing, contracting and other steps reduce what governments can accomplish with their infrastructure dollars. The losses are quite real.

There are also other less tangible but no less important losses, pointed out by Keywell when I spoke with him about how his New Year’s gifts relate to the business of government. “Delay in constituent responsiveness produces an additional cost — namely, an erosion of confidence in government,” he said. We have called the positive version of this phenomenon “the responsive city cycle,” where meeting expectations produces trust and more citizen participation.

While many consumers of government services may be skeptical, Keywell pointed out a few ways that government could use what it has to more efficiently and promptly deliver services. For example, a city is already collecting data from equipment such as motors, fleets and pumps, so why not incorporate that information to reduce equipment downtime, or more precisely plan for repairs? Or consider the permitting process: When Atlanta improved its building permit process to reduce the wait for many home permits from six months to one day, the city was really giving people their time back — workers could begin earlier and occupancy could occur sooner.

A lack of urgency creates opportunity costs, harming an investor, or a challenged family that misses a month of benefits, or even a government itself that foregoes tax revenue from increased property value. A few years ago, in our book A New City O/S, Neil Kleiman and I suggested that to drive the benefits of technology into customer service, government needed to change the way it operated. For example, replacing sequential multi-agency processes with concurrent action that leverages instant access to information, making slowness in processing applications and permits obsolete.

Opportunity costs need to be valued by government. Mayors and administrators should identify how tasks can be done more quickly, identifying what tools can be brought to bear toward improvements. Cities should convert everything they can to digital systems: Examining each process, stripping out needless steps, consolidating others and most of all measuring time to completion for each action of each agency. Those times should be transparently benchmarked and reported. Visualize the opportunity costs — how many fewer miles of new streets and bike paths were the result? How much more expensive was the sidewalk? How much more rent was paid by the would-be restaurateur waiting to open?

For internal actions as well, officials should create a culture of urgency. When he was mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg placed clocks on every conference room table, all set at a maximum of 30 minutes, in an attempt to render obsolete needlessly long meetings. Keywell provides a road map suggesting that a mayor should take a stand on behalf of timeliness, “killing bad regulations and processes, halting obsolete approaches, which would be a refreshing, even thrilling, way of governing.”

There is a young hero in Keywell’s book who tells a crowd that “the light shines bright on the now [which] holds expansive possibility.” For local officials, the possibility is one of helping more people, more quickly accomplishing their goals, and in the end, improving their communities.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He can be reached at
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