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Can Government Actually Be Efficient?

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Government efficiency. Those words sound like a contradiction in terms. But is one major metropolis finding ways to truly improve productivity?

That’s the implication in an issue of L’Atelier, an online journal of “distruptive innovation.” They write:

In January 2012, Mayor of San Francisco Edwin Lee appointed the city’s first Chief Innovation Officer, to foster a culture of innovation across City Hall, and leverage technology to improve San Francisco. “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.”

Government Business Efficiency - San Francisco

It’s hard to know how much this initiative has really helped. Their first-year retrospective [PDF] touts a variety of accomplishments regarding increased access to government data.

It was only a few years ago that SFWeekly called their hometown “The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.”. Their complaints include:

Voters approved a $106 million bond in 2000 to rebuild 19 libraries, and $28 million more was ponied up by the state and private donors. That money was spent without a coherent building plan being formulated between the Library Commission and Department of Public Works — leading to such large cost overruns and long delays that the commission abandoned five of the projects.

The San Francisco Chronicle revealed that the city had, for decades, been siphoning nearly $700 million from its Hetch Hetchy water system into the San Francisco General Fund instead of maintaining the aging aqueduct. Several mayors and boards of supervisors used that money to fund pet causes, and the Public Utilities Commission didn’t say no.

San Francisco installed crime cameras in dangerous areas, which are proven to reduce crime if someone is watching them. The city, however, forbids anyone from watching them until after a crime is committed, out of privacy concerns.

The city raised nearly $5 million in private funds for an antipoverty program, Communities of Opportunity, then spent more than half the money on administration and marketing to “raise awareness” of the program among poor people. There wasn’t enough money left to offer substantive assistance, and, after five years, an audit found no discernible results for the money spent.

Government Business Efficiency - Golden Gate

© Flickr user alainpicard

There are plenty of other articles citing government inefficiency. Another from SF Weekly notes the problems with citizen commissions which end up “costing millions of dollars—and, in many cases, actually result in an entrenchment of the bureaucratic status quo.”

All of these references are in the past, so San Francisco may have made significant progress in some of these areas. Still, cities need to become more efficient. However, innovation should be focused on fixing a broken process, rather than just making that broken process move faster.

Consider this offering from InnovateSF, the Mayor’s program to improve government efficiency:

Figuring out what permits or licenses you may need to start or expand a business in San Francisco is tough. The overwhelmingly complex process may make even the most passionate entrepreneur hesitate.

Aspiring small business owners have to navigate across as many as 10 different city departments, – not to mention state and federal agencies – making multiple phone calls and visits to City Hall, filling out dozens of forms, and often receiving conflicting or confusing information

Has InnovateSF identified ways to simplify and combine permits? Have they worked to eliminate permits that are redundant or no longer necessary?

No, they’ve built an online tool that sends you all of the permits you need after you answer a couple of questions.

Is that really innovation, or is it just taking an “overwhelmingly complex process” and hiding it from view?

Process improvement requires asking difficult questions. That’s not just “how can we make this less painful?” but “why does it work this way in the first place?”

Regardless of your political affiliation, difficult questions are at the heart of good government.

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