Cutting Through the Red Tape

Government Innovation: Doing More with Less

December 05, 2014

By Erin Franks,

Earlier this Fall, I had the opportunity to go to Governing magazine’s California Leadership Conference in Sacramento. The theme of the event was innovation in government, from innovative strategies around specific issues such as water conservation, resilience to disasters, or fiscal troubles, to ways to structure government agencies to promote innovation amongst employees. Now government isn’t exactly known for being particularly innovative – in fact, its lack of innovation is often pointed to as one of its main failings. However, innovation in government is even more important now than ever, as cities struggle to do more with less in the wake of the recession. Without some innovative thinking, local government may find itself struggling with cutbacks of vital services.

One panel I attended discussed creative ways governments have collaborated improve their work. Key services such as fire and emergency response are often very expensive, but Yolo County, CA, realized that the county government and all of the separate cities within the county were all working independently on this issue, and as a result were overlapping many of their efforts. Yolo County led the initiative to standardize the operating procedures for the various emergency response teams in their jurisdiction and to design plans that allowed all of the disparate groups to work together seamlessly in the event of a major crisis. In this way, all of the cities and the county were able to maintain the same level of emergency services, but significantly cut their budgets.

Innovation is particularly important at the local level because local governments are often best placed to respond to issues impacting their constituents directly. Many speakers at the conference touched on the issue of inequality, which is especially acute in California. One approach to addressing inequality is helping people learn the skills they need to participate in the modern economy, beginning with basic technology literacy. The Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Riverside spoke about a fascinating program where they provide 8 hours of free computer training to any residents making less than $45,000 per year. In addition, participants receive a free computer at the end of their training. Where does the city get these computers? Local citizens donate their old and broken computers to be recycled, then the city trains at-risk youth to refurbish them. This program not only provides multiple groups of people training directly relevant to the burgeoning tech industry, but it reduces waste and protects the environment!

The California Leadership Conference was a great experience; I met a number of people from all over the state doing really incredible and interesting things that will help their governments work better and more efficiently. I’m looking forward to taking these ideas and lessons back to my job at the Public Utilities Commission, and to think outside the box in my work. I’m particularly excited to look at ways to use data to help decision-making, and to collaborate with different departments to find ways we can work together on projects such as the response to the drought. Hearing what other places have been able to do gives me hope that I’ll be able make a meaningful contribution during my time.

Connecting the Dots

October 09, 2014

By Pai Ferreira, 2014 SF Fellow

Energy is part of our everyday lives yet in the developed world many of us take it for granted. When I was placed in the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) Power Enterprise my first reaction was a feeling of uncertainty because I thought I had no power industry background. In a sense, this feeling is not necessarily true because everyone has some level of power knowledge. My perspective started to shift as I begin to learn more about the Power business and its important contribution towards the city’s goal of green development and energy reliability.

As a branch of the SFPUC, the Power Enterprise’s major role is to provide municipal power to the various city facilities like the MTA, San Francisco Public Library, City Hall, General Hospitals, etc. This makes one think that keeping the lights on is an effort to support economic development. To have a vibrant working city there needs to be good energy resources. Most of the power the SFPUC receives is from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir via hydropower. The process of converting that power into energy and have it delivered to a facility’s socket is quite amazing.

Learning about how the Power Enterprise functions made me reflect on the things I have learned in school in relation to the energy industry; in particular, a chapter on structuralism and privatization of public goods.  One of the documentaries we watched was on the privatization of power in Nigeria. It highlighted an underserved, impoverished, and economically challenged neighborhood and followed their struggle with skyrocketing electrical prices which ultimately led to electricity not being affordable for the residents. When the Nigerian government approved privatization of the electrical industry, the decision was accompanied with minimally regulations. The bottom line came down to those who could not pay will not get power. This business principle of cutthroat profit seeking caused a lot of negative externalities.  For example, during the summer months many of the locals could not afford electricity to power their fans, which disproportionately affected the elderly, sick, and children. Additionally, work cannot efficiently get done after the sun went down. It was humbling to watch a young school girl describe her challenges of doing homework by candle light because her family’s electricity was shut off.

The documentary helped to reinforce the idea that power is an essential element for economic development. The people in the developed world often miss this connection and take having “easily-accessible” power for granted. My placement and past studies helped me to make this meaningful connection.

Libraries, an essential community resource

October 07, 2014

By Cody Zeger, 2015 SF Fellow

Coming out of college, I never expected to spend more time in a library after graduation than I did while I was actually in school. What did people that weren’t in school use libraries for anyway? If I wanted to learn something outside of class all I needed to do was turn on my computer and I could find almost anything from the comfort of my couch at home. During my month of working at the San Francisco Public Library, I’ve learned just how privileged that view was. Each day at the Main Library people from all over the city line up outside all three entrances, waiting for the doors to open. The effect is especially poignant on Fridays, when the Main doesn’t open until noon and crowds of people have time to accrue. Standing on the second floor landing at opening time is like being in a whirlpool. Patrons speed toward the security gate—the one and only entrance to the library’s resources—swirling down the staircase onto the first floor, through the book detectors, and then scattering like buckshot; each one awaiting their chance to use a computer, read the newspaper, or just have a space to be. It’s beautiful and a bit overwhelming at the same time.

Working in the Facilities Division, I help oversee all of the custodial, engineering, and security work that happens in libraries across San Francisco. Despite working in the Main Library my office is closed off from the general public and I pretty much only hear about patrons when they have broken one of our codes of conduct and are removed for the day or suspended. It’s a biased view that removes anyone who does follow our rules from my daily experience, even though they are the majority. Out of 6.7 million patrons that visited the library in the last fiscal year, only 0.04% of those resulted in violations of our code of conduct. What’s more, that number is going down each year, even as the number of visitors increases.

What I’ve come to learn over my time here is just how many people depend upon a resource I thought I might no longer need only four months ago. How do you find and apply for a job if you do not have a computer? Where do you spend time if you don’t have a home and aren’t comfortable spending all of your time on the streets each day? How do you study for the MCATs if you are living at home and need a quiet place to focus? For an extraordinary number of people in San Francisco, the library provides the answer to many of these questions. There are no requirements for entry, you are welcome no matter what you look like or what experiences you’ve had—you no longer even need an address to get a library card. It is a space for any person and, as a public service agency, must respond to the needs of its people. That is why there are constant programs going on to engage families and teens, book clubs, and a social worker who helps patrons when police action would be ineffective or inappropriate. The library is truly a reflection of its patrons, each branch with its own personality based on the people who populate it, and I hope to continue learning exactly how integral it is in helping our city thrive.

The Perpetual Journey: Finding Authentic Understanding in Governance

September 23, 2014

by Edward-Michael Muna, 2014 SF City Hall Fellow

“You know you are probably the only Chamorro working for San Francisco”, he said gruffly as we picked up our family’s roasted pig. I was proud hearing his interest in my work especially since my grandfather was often quiet. He’s a truck driver who hauls gravel to pave roads, before that he was working for Guam Power Authority back on my home island. I value his opinion as a father figure and as a leader, yet my life is so divergent from his: I graduated from college, grew up in the Bay Area and haven’t started my own family. I desire a deeper connection with him as a government employee in utilities but my grandfather’s time as a laborer is undeniable as the meeting of sweat and pain is carved across his body. I could never know what it’s like to feel what he feels and much like my estrangement from his life, policy and governance are often removed from people’s lived experiences.

This dynamic became clear to me when I was sent to Moccasin to assist with Rim Fire recovery last year. Many workers there have old ties with the SFPUC and the local area was so ingrained with San Francisco that historically its development has ebbed and flowed with it. When discussing the differences between Moccasin and San Francisco I gathered a common response from people there. “We love the SFPUC but no one in San Francisco knows what it’s like out here and what it means to do the work we do.” This was unfortunate for me to hear because many of these people were men and women doing vital and often dangerous work supporting San Francisco.

The divide was also evident in communication gaps between Moccasin and San Francisco. One instance that stood out was getting field crews to fill out FEMA paperwork as they responded to the fire. Early in the process our finance department realized that many crews were incorrectly filling out FEMA forms or returning them dirty and illegible. We would try communicating our issue to work crews but it became difficult if not patronizing to do so, as many crews lumbered into our command center covered in ash after 12 or more hours of work. It became a balancing act of trying to communicate challenges facing workers to a management located miles away.

I bring up these ideas because I have been struggling with my role working with the city and my personal value for engaging those most affected by its policies. Reflecting on my recent experience I wonder what effective and compassionate leadership looks like and how one crafts policy connected to people’s lives and those doing groundwork. This conundrum was with me as I witnessed the Moccasin microcosm and interpersonally as I worked to further understand those around me, like my grandfather. Authentic engagement is an issue plaguing local, state, and national governments for years and I hope that as I continue my work with the SFPUC that I can better understand where the chasms of understanding are and how to bridge them as a young policy advocate.

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