A national expert in technology in government says one of Honolulu Hale’s lead technologists isn’t just great — he’s “awesome.”
That’s from Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code For America, a public service nonprofit that helps municipal governments become more efficient and open. She’s in Honolulu this week, talking up the virtues of “Gov 2.0” and checking in on her organization’s work at city hall.
Honolulu is one of eight Code For America cities picked from a pool of more than 20 applicants. This is the second year of the program’s existence. And Pahlka, visiting Civil Beat headquarters Monday, said Information Technology Deputy Director Forest Frizzell played a big role in bringing three fellows to Oahu.
“There’s a number of factors that we look at, including the kinds of projects that the cities want the fellows to do, the ability to demonstrate broad support for it, especially at the executive level,” Pahlka said. “We’re not just trying to put these tech people in and fix government. We’re actually trying to get people to understand what government does, and how important government is, and that there’s all these wonderful people in city government who truly think of themselves as public servants. Forest is just a great example of that. He’s open to lots of new thinking, but really gets that government’s actually here to help people’s lives be better.”
She said she was blown away when Frizzell said he poked around on Code For America’s Github account — a website where developers share open-source code — and decided to adapt an app called “Adopt a Hydrant” for use in Honolulu. It had been designed to encourage neighbors to help each other deal with massive snow banks in Boston and Chicago.
Snow’s not as much of a challenge in the tropics, but Frizzell told Code For America he wants to use the same idea to encourage residents to check and replace batteries on tsunami warning sirens.
“What city government IT people poke around on someone’s Github account? That’s awesome!” Pahlka said. “It’s really rare that you get someone who’s that curious, that technologically savvy.”
She said Code For America’s biggest wins from its first year — when its fellows worked in Boston, Philadelphia and Seattle — were not on what might be traditionally considered the big-picture issues vexing IT departments. Instead, the fellows worked to solve some of the smaller problems facing those city governments. In Boston, for example, three fellows working part time were able to build an app in about three months to help parents identify potential schools for their students. A similar app might have taken a vendor two years and $2 million.
“Things just change too fast in our society right now to have two-year cycles on small projects,” she said. “If you’re a developer, these are tiny little issues. There’s like a screw missing in your engine, and you just need to get the screw and fix it. It’s the equivalent of that size, but because most city governments just don’t have hacker technologists around … those things become these big roadblocks when they’re really not.”
The example shows that in-house technologists can make municipal government that much more agile and responsive to citizens’ needs. Code For America, Pahlka said, hopes to build that mentality into the staff, and promote open-source sharing and collaboration between government and the community to solve problems.
Pahlka’s visit comes about half-way through the three Code For America fellows’ five-week “residency” at Honolulu Hale.
Sheba Najmi, Diana Tran and Mick Thompson were introduced Jan. 31, though they didn’t get top billing in a city press release about the Honolulu 311 app that allows residents to report abandoned property or busted street lights through their cell phone. Mayor Peter Carlisle had touted Honolulu’s selection as a Code for America city back in August 2011.
“One of the common things that we’ve heard from a lot of different fellows it that city government, they have multiple systems,” Thompson told Civil Beat in a meeting at Honolulu Hale last week. “Departments run different systems, so things get entered by one department in one place, somehow get sent and then the other department says, ‘Well, we don’t want it that way, we want it somehow else.’ So they re-enter it.
“I think that’s one of the really key grounds for government: figuring out how to interact between departments that need to talk to each other in a much smoother way,” he said.
Tran said that working better together will allow the agencies to serve the public better.
“One leads to the other, so if we can get rid of this stove-pipe mentality where departments act as their own thing and are not concerned about interacting with the other ones, it makes information more available so that the city can have time and be more efficient about educating citizens about what the city is doing for them,” she said.
Najmi said the idea of citizenship might be broken, and that technology can help bridge the gap and help neighbors help each other.
Both the fellows and Pahlka, in separate meetings, brought up the story of a citizen who used a mobile app to alert her municipal government that a possum had gotten into her trash can, and she didn’t know if it was alive or dead or what to do about it. A neighbor saw the posting online, tipped over the trashcan, saw the (live) possum run free, and declared the problem solved.
Thompson, Tran and Najmi will return to San Francisco in early March to reconnect with 23 other fellows who were stationed at seven other cities around the country. They’ll look for similarities and try to build “minimum viable products,” Pahlka said, and then roll them out in the community for user feedback. For the rest of the year, they’ll tweak those programs and develop others to maximize government efficiency here in Honolulu.
Eventually, local technologists both inside and outside of government will need to pick up where Code For America leaves off, Pahlka said.
“We want to institutionalize that culture change.”