The Many Ways Government Must ‘Deliver’ in the Digital Age

By Stephen Goldsmith • November 10, 2016

Bill Eggers’ new book, Delivering on Digital: The Innovators and Technologies That Are Transforming Government, presents practitioners with an understanding of the critical components a public official needs to turn technology into results. Through case studies from around the world, Eggers describes the marriage of technological ambition and political will, where building software and building consensus demand equal levels of innovation. The results are not only a new suite of digital products to improve the lives of citizens, but also a collaborative, agile approach to problem solving that Eggers calls “the digital mindset.”

When technologists meet with capable public servants, they not only engender new digital solutions to improve citizens’ lives, but also develop ways of operating government that are leaner, cheaper, and more responsive to civic demands. Eggers refers to the public sector’s adoption of digital technology and culture as “hacking bureaucracy.” Now synonymous with digital espionage, “hacking” in the world of productive computing is more accurately defined as a quick, iterative, and communal approach to problem solving. To take advantage of the opportunities provided by digital networks, leaders in government must become “hackers” by breaking down departmental silos and engaging the communities they serve, both directly and through data analysis.

Cities, in particular, have much to gain from “hacking bureaucracy.” In cities we find the large data sets and tech communities that allow for speedy innovation. By opening up the flow of information between departments and to the public, the potential for analysis and efficiency improvement is endless. Eggers cites New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) as a leader in this field, solving major problems both cheaply and quickly. Tasked with reducing the number of illegal apartment conversions, MODA aggregated data from the Department of Buildings and solicited firsthand insight from the city’s two hundred building inspectors. By combining this information into a predictive data model, they were able to better direct building inspectors, increasing their vacate order hit rate from thirteen percent to seventy percent. The effects of this improvement have been far reaching. As Eggers notes, fires in illegal conversions are fifteen times more likely to result in firefighter injury or death. Last year, New York had the second lowest number of fire related deaths since the FDNY began keeping record in 1916, thanks in part to MODA’s model.

Whereas mayors used to have intermittent contact with their constituencies at town halls, informal meetings and the ballot box, they are now capable of constant communication via social media, cloud computing and data analysis. They can know about problems as they arise, acknowledge them, and update citizens when they are solved. Building on the thesis of the book we co-authored in 2004, Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector, Eggers envisions a government that not only collaborates with public, private, and nonprofit groups, but also treats “citizens who were once viewed as ‘customers’ to be passively served… [as] active partners in designing more effective government.” Citing examples from Boston and New York, he describes procuring citizen innovation through managed competitions and open access to development tools. My own project, Data-Smart City Solutions, is replete with similar case studies.

More than an audit of what has and hasn’t worked for governments trying to break into the digital realm, Eggers’ book also contains addenda to each chapter – playbooks with itemized strategies, tools, techniques, and resources – that provide public officials with critical information they may use in effecting change. Though legible and engaging to the casual reader, Delivering on Digital is indispensable for the political practitioner seeking to make more targeted technology and policy.

Entering the digital realm isn’t an option for governments anymore. It is a mandate. Delivering on Digital is an invaluable guide to meeting that demand.

Wyatt Cmar, a research assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, contributed research and writing for this column.

Top photo adapted from book cover by Wyatt Cmar

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

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