The City of San Francisco - a "lean" approach to government

By May 04, 2013
Ed Lee in San Francisco

Ed Lee’s Office of Civic Innovation walks in the steps of the worlds’ hottest startups by going “lean.”

In January 2012, Mayor of San Francisco Edwin Lee appointed the city - and the world’s - first Chief Innovation Officer, to foster a culture of innovation across City Hall, and build stronger relationships with the local tech industry. “I am a firm believer that the spirit of innovation drives economic growth, solves our toughest civic challenges, and creates a better San Francisco for all of our residents” the Mayor said. Jay Nath, appointed to this role, was formerly Director of Innovation at the Department of Technology, and pioneered San Francisco’s open data initiatives. Coming from a technology background, Nath and aims to bring best practices from the the startup world to the public sector. A year after its creation, the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation publishes a retrospectiveshedding light on its vision and achievements. Titled “A startup called government,” the document emphasizes Nath’s “lean” approach to government.

The government as a platform

With a close to non-existent budget ($420,000) - less than 1 percent of the City and County’s total budget ($6.8 billion) - and a very small team, the Office of Civic Innovation “operates like a startup within government” Deputy Innovation Officer Shannon Spanhake told l’Atelier. Inspired by the lean startup model, particularly popular among Silicon Valley startups, Nath hopes to “create as much value as possible, with little or no capital cost” he explains. In this respect, he has developed a strategy which places the government as a platform for others to build upon, through a strong open data policy, and open innovation initiatives. “By opening up City data and creating new channels for residents to voice their concerns and share their ideas, we are also making government more transparent and accessible.” The City has organized many civic focused hackathons and built similar open innovation platforms. For instance, open innovation platform connects City Hall and “community problem-solvers.” SFMTA used it to crowdsource the design of their new logo.

Inviting others to the table

The platform approach to government has proved pretty successful so far. While many startups built products using DataSF, several companies also contribute their own data sets to the platform. Real-world analytics startup Motion Loft, which measures human and car traffic in real time with simple captors, was the first startup to do so. Nath has focused a lot of efforts on inviting the private sector to the table. Ed Lee recently announced a partnership between the City and local sharing economy startups to work together on improving San Francisco’s resiliency plans. If a disaster hit San Francisco, Airbnb, CityCarShare and many others would immediately tap into their local communities to help victims. The Mayor also recently announced a partnership between Yelp and the city’s Department of Public Health, to display health inspection scores for all restaurants. 

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