Pioneering a new public administration paradigm

The digital revolution has transformed everything from how we find a ride to how companies find customers.  Yet municipal government largely retains the same administrative architecture put in place by the progressives over a century ago.

Today there exists a multitude of isolated examples and case studies for how the digital revolution can transform public administration -- for instance what Britain's Cabinet Level Government Digital Services has done with user centered design or how New York City has been able to ingrain a culture of measurement to improve municipal service delivery.

How do all these nascent efforts fit together?

Yet the new paradigm for tackling public problems is still very much undefined.  What do truly digitally native public institutions look like?  What would it mean to transform how city governments, local nonprofits, and other civic actors are run to reflect the reality's of today's digital world?  

We don't have all the answers by any means though so over the next sixth months we're convening a diverse group of civic leaders in a series of google hangouts to work through these questions.  How might digitally native public institutions transform how we tackle city challenges?

We imagine going down the list of civic sectors to discuss what this new landscape means for municipal government, nonprofits, universities, media organizations, local businesses, labor unions, transnational corporations and most importantly how the digital revolution can enable new connections between all of the above.

We also imagine digging deep into the role of data since decisions define democratic governance and new ways to discover, integrate and analyze data are already impacting that process.  Lastly, we'd like to take the long view and look deeply at how all this new data might enable new ways of understanding cities.  A host of academic institutions, not least our own Center for Urban Science and Progress, have created entire new research centers to develop a new science of cities.

First though we're going to begin with the basics.  What are the barriers to transforming public administration?  Unlike the private sector, we have little margin for error -- the police department can't just throw up a 404 fail whale when an experimental system goes down.  Vital services like police, roads, water, power and fire must operate 24/7 with extremely high reliability.  

Why public institutions are special

Furthermore, we do not have a single mission like profit and must navigate competing interests and agendas.  Often there isn't agreement on what the problem is let alone what constitutes a "fix."  Experimentation by definition raises the risk of failure and can easily become a political liability.  When was the last time you saw a mayor campaign on "failing forward?"

At a broader level, cities unlike companies rarely if ever fail.  None of the railroad and canal companies that dominated the first 1896 dow jones industrial average still top the index exist in the same form today yet the dramatic decline in Detroit is an ongoing major news story.

The public administration paradigm put in place at the turn of the last century -- a professional civil service, industrial inspired organization and detailed rationally codified rules -- largely remain intact today.  Moreover, since then rules and organizations have accreted to create more complex and cumbersome administrative architectures.

In 1960, the State of California authorized the construction of the State Water Project, the largest water conveyance and distribution system in human history.  Then the State Department of Water Resources built it.  By comparison, over the past decade, dozens of local, state and federal agencies have spent over $250 million dollars and thousands of pages navigating the complex administrative thicket to take the pragmatic steps necessary to safeguard that investment.

A big frontier in public administration

Meanwhile, predator drones, new instrumentation techniques, and the ongoing digital revolution present new opportunities to manage this vital public resource and challenge us not to remain content with the status quo.  Climate change and the reverberations of the Great Recession demand more not just from water utilities but all municipal governments.

So how might municipal government embrace the tools and techniques of the digital revolution to better meet those mountains?  We welcome your participation and engagement.



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