Learning from historical "ARGO-esque" initiatives

Varun asked me to post my notes from reading "Not Well Advised: The City as Client -- An Illuminating Analysis of Local Governments and their Consultants."  

The book highlighted with great case studies the challenges in changing how local governments operate through advice and data analysis, no matter how fancy.  First, I'll lay out the key challenges and lessons learned I took away and then outline the lessons learned for ARGO.

  1. Local governments aren't in the business of procuring cutting edge tools or techniques.  This has big implications as the civic tech community has learned through its focus on procurement reform.  
  2. The key ingredient in improving government operations is not brilliant analysis so much as a willing and able client local government with the resources -- human, financial, and legal -- to enable a successful relationship between data analyzer and decision-maker.
  3. There's oodles of organizational kinks in universities that make it challenging to have them as the key "supplier" of advice and data analysis.  These go beyond the standard critiques of academy as more concerned with truth and theory and researchers motivated by peer review success.  It also has to do with the simple realities of two large bureaucracies -- city government and university administration -- interfacing.
  4. Lack of supply of good advice is generally not the top or anywhere near the top problem local government managers face.
  5. "History does not repeat but it does rhyme."  The vocabulary of "urban observatories" used in the book describes centralizing city demographic and economic data, yet it is at the very least thought provoking that CUSP where we graduated from employs the same term for it's persistent imaging of NYC.  Illustrates the broader point that much of today's excitement about the potential of computers and digital modeling techniques to understand cities is not new and challenges today's urban science thinkers to provide a more robust answer why "this time is different" than the pat answer of "more data."
  6. Regarding 2&3, the book briefly touches on the demand for analysis and notes that the big driver of change in local government is public opinion.  It also discusses analysis of public interest that does not necessarily need client buy-in: impact evaluations.  That illuminates the public's curiosity about government performance and accountability but also encourages experimentation by robustly measuring the impact of a new way of operating.
  7. One of the coolest ideas was a short quote from a city manager about rather than having Grand Partnerships, just letting a dedicated analyst wander the halls of local government and arenas of city service delivery and ask staff and citizens about their problems.

Takeaways for ARGO

  1. The elephant in the corner of the room is the industrial era bureaucracy that makes implementing creative advice in local government so difficult.  Lot easier to say than change though I'd note it hasn't always been this way.  The Romans ran their cities very differently for instance. In education, the increasing momentum against one-size-fits-all ideology forms a good focus point for rethinking this industrial paradigm though the challenge is there's no "one solution" to the "one-size-fits-all" condition.
  2. The "have-an-analyst-wander-around" idea sounds really cool (and echos much of Coro methodology and what Mike Flowers implemented at MODA via site visits) and ARGO should make a habit of doing that.  If we had enough resources, it'd be really cool to do a "digital anthropology project" exploring how different walks of civic life use digital tools differently to tackle public problems.  Could be cool to partner with Coro on that.
  3. I'm increasingly of the mind that impact evaluation form a solid starting point for increasing the demand for data analysis (or the full stack of civic data science as we might say at ARGO).  Such analyses tackle the intuitive and obviously important question of measuring what works.  In addition, they can be public facing and are amenable to enabling creative ideas to scale the volume of analysis.  I think it'd be particularly interesting to try and do that across the full spectrum of local government actions in a specific region like New York or Southern California in partnership with the right local institutions (in NY would include folks like NY Center for Economic Opportunity and both the philanthropic community would play a big role).

Apologies if that was a bit rambling though hopefully gives you some insights into how ARGO thinks and serves as motivation to go read the book yourself!



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