Trial by Fire: Lessons in City Government
By: Apoorva Pasricha
I rode my first 1.5 hour CalTrain from San Francisco to San Joseˊ in August 2019 and power-walked the mile from San Joseˊ Diridon to City Hall in 4-inch heels. With a Moleskine under my arm, a 16-oz cup of coffee, and a Netflix-high from rewatching Parks and Recreation all summer, I was [naively] ready to start the year.
Every year, the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation (MOTI) selects a year-long leadership fellow from Harvard Business School to lead high impact projects on behalf of the Mayor.
I’m a tech optimist and fundamentally believe that technology can be a force of good in cities -- automating cumbersome forms to help residents receive social benefits, helping vulnerable communities get connected, counting people for the 2020 Census, transitioning businesses online, enhancing public safety through better information flow, and so much more. After spending time with Sidewalk Labs and Intersection, I wanted to tackle these problems on the “factory floor,” as close to the residents as possible.
The fellowship was a natural fit.
I joined a small, but nimble team with a mandate to lead digital inclusion, build a chatbot, and cultivate our start-up ecosystem. Between a global pandemic, getting tagged into “emergency operations,” and recruiting a new Chief Innovation Officer for the City, my time was anything but an ordinary fellowship experience. I loved it.
Despite my experience in public service and policy wonk-iness, I uncovered my own “business” bias in solving public problems. Crisis leadership in City government can’t be collapsed into a single lesson, so I’ll start with three.
Government can benefit financially from public-private partnerships, while increasing service quality for residents.
In business school, I took a class called “Sustainable Cities and Resilient Infrastructure.” We socratically debated the merits of public-private partnerships for real estate, energy, or water projects. I left the discussion often unsettled by the fact that infrastructure projects create public value, but the financial value is largely captured by the private sector.
In April 2020, there were 67,000 students in San Joseˊ without computing devices for distance learning. Corporations and local residents donated devices to help families get connected. The City spent thousands of dollars refurbishing devices, which would ultimately break down quickly anyways. School teachers were wasting valuable time troubleshooting technical issues on non-standard laptop models during online instruction time. These donations became a costly, stopgap solution. School districts still needed to spend money to buy standard Chromebooks for every student. We were not just losing money, but we were delivering poor quality services to our most vulnerable communities.
Something wasn’t right.
I wanted to create a new, sustainable supply chain of laptops. Through the Digital Inclusion Fund, we built a partnership with local corporations and Revivn, a certified public benefit hardware refurbisher. Instead of charging the City to refurbish old devices, Revivin picked up any hardware from MOTI’s corporate partners and provided the City with the salvageable market value, plus a premium for all electronics. The City worked with the Santa Clara County Office of Education and California Emerging Technology Fund to funnel the money to low-income, high-need schools to directly purchase new laptops for their students. This created an entirely new revenue stream for the City, enabled corporations to engage on the issue within the scope of their existing business models, and provided students with quality laptops they can rely on during distance learning.
The City captured the financial value from the public-private partnership, while creating broader public value -- all by understanding the motivations and business models of the existing players in the supply chain and proactively creating a new model.
Today, there are only 17,000 students remaining without devices.
Effective communication is a competitive advantage, especially when the City is held accountable for decisions made elsewhere.
When Santa Clara County imposed the first stay-at-home order in March that shutdown indoor and outdoor dining, San Joseˊans didn’t call Public Health Director Dr. Sarah Cody. They called Mayor Sam Liccardo.
When Santa Clara County established public health guidance around masking or PPE requirements for re-opening, small business owners similarly expressed frustration to the Mayor’s office. As a City that’s not the same as the County (unlike San Francisco), San Joseˊ is accountable to the public for many decisions we do not influence.
In business school, when dividing roles and responsibilities, we’d often chart a RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) table for the task. I mentally drew the matrix from the perspective of the resident for our public health decisions. In the view of a resident, the city was all four- responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed. In reality, we were simply informed.
The County government was responsible for issuing stay-at-home orders or mandating public health decisions. Health experts, the State of California, our Federal Government, among others were consulted. Residents and City governments were informed, and the Mayor was held accountable.
In these moments, the most powerful role a City can play is to leverage every platform to communicate with its constituents. The pandemic has pitted cities against each other. Everyday, the New York Times, LA Times, or the Chronicle release another ombre graph emphasizing which cities are faring well in the crisis. A Politico in-depth analysis of what is driving a low case count in City X follows.
When the Mayor began his Facebook Live series, I would often wonder how many residents watched to get information through his videos? Similarly, the City launched a new website “Silicon Valley Strong” to inform residents about local food and shelter or small business assistance. I wondered whether residents would use this website or the City’s direct homepage to find answers.
It didn’t matter -- we needed to find as many outlets as possible to connect with residents.
We need to provide 1.1 million people with access to information when they couldn’t physically come to the City Hall. These residents are LatinX, Black, White, Spanish speaking, Vietnamese speaking, low-income, digitally unconnected. If communication was truly our competitive advantage, we needed to disseminate information through every digital and non-digital platform.
I lead a team to build an AI-powered chatbot in collaboration with the U.S. Digital Response, Code for America, OpenSet, and our City Manager’s Office to help residents find information and complete tasks in a user-friendly manner. Using data from the City’s call center and anticipatory design, the chatbot leads people to information that they might be looking for without asking them to type it in. We were especially excited to launch it in Spanish and Vietnamese, two of the major languages spoken by San Joseˊans. We released it as an SMS service to ensure that those who did not have internet connectivity could access information about COVID testing, eviction moratoriums, etc. using their mobile phones.
I learned that what cities could do best is just be responsive to our residents’ needs and over communicate rather than under communicate.
Convening the right people is a precursor to action.
My Parks and Recreation rewatch taught me that starting a “committee” is the enemy of true action. I came with a similar skepticism about convenings, especially amongst high profile individuals. My bias has always been towards action.
In the summer, the City determined that we needed to proactively address economic recovery in the region. With thousands of small businesses on the brink of closure, families at the risk of eviction, and only a small portion of federal dollars available, we knew we needed to think bigger.
The Mayor convened the Silicon Valley Economic Recovery Roundtable, a group of business executives, academics, labor experts, and more, who came together to ideate ways to spur sustainable economic recovery.
The Chief of Economic Development and I sat on late night calls brainstorming who to invite to the Roundtable. We wanted to make sure that an economist brought a data driven, policy focused perspective, the small business leaders advocated on behalf of their community, and the representatives from the community foundation shared their knowledge about the most vulnerable communities.
Not only was the City a convenor, but we played the crucial, yet controversial role of determining who had a seat at the table. Without diverse perspectives, we may not have quickly and effectively galvanized collective action around the digital divide or produced a playbook for small businesses to transition online.
In these moments, I learned the role convening can play, but more importantly, that my personal impact derives from being an advocate for representation at the table.
People in positions of power, elected officials and corporate leaders, will always have representation, but it is incumbent on us to actively invite in others- residents, activists, labor leaders, local academics, and health officials.
I learned from my time in the city the importance of creating value in partnerships, how effective communication is an essential part of civic responsibility, and the power of bringing multiple stakeholders together.
I always intended to transition back into the private sector, at the intersection of technology and cities. Mobility -- moving people, goods, and services -- is a fundamental challenge that cities are trying to address. I’m excited to share that I’ll be joining Zoox, an autonomous vehicle company acquired by Amazon that will bring robo-taxis into cities.