May 02 2016 Bringing together startups and government to solve city challenges
In two innovative programs in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, startups will get the chance to work with government agencies to help solve complex city challenges, from analyzing budgets to improving the environment.
In Pittsburgh, PGH Lab, a new initiative of the City’s Department of Innovation and Performance, will select a group of civic-minded startups based in the city or surrounding Allegheny County to work with City departments this summer. Applications are currently open for startups with ideas related to citizen engagement, City operations, and climate change, and the collaborations will take place this summer. “It’s pretty exciting to be able to open the doors up … And to really be asking the question of startups: How can we work together?” Debra Lam, Pittsburgh’s Chief Innovation and Performance Officer, told Route Fifty.
“When we think about all the many problems we’re facing in society, we at City Hall can’t do it alone, we need to work across sectors.”
In San Francisco, a similar program is back after a two-year hiatus. The Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation’s Startup in Residence Program returned in January with participation from three other Northern California cities: Oakland, San Leandro, and West Sacramento. To encourage shared learning between government and business, the program embeds the startups within City departments for 16 weeks, culminating in a demo day in September, according to a profile of the program in GovTech. “When we think about all the many problems we’re facing in society, we at City Hall can’t do it alone, we need to work across sectors,” said San Francisco Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath. “We need to be collaborative, and we need to be open.” The 13 chosen startups will focus on a range of issues including emergency response, coyote sightings, police department data accessibility, and preschool outreach, enrollment, and administration.
The public sector has sometimes struggled to keep up with the proliferation of technology, while facing increasing demand from the public for more citizen-facing technology and access to information. Citizens often expect the quick solutions and easy access to information that they’re used to in other areas of their lives. In response to this pressure, many municipalities are creating new positions and hiring many digital innovators from Silicon Valley. (See more about this trend in our blog post: Innovators from tech industry work to make the public sector more data-driven.)
The public sector has sometimes struggled to keep up with the proliferation of technology, while facing increasing demand from the public for more citizen-facing technology and access to information.
But facing pressures to behave more like a business, government at all levels may have reason to be wary of this shift. In Why you can’t run government like a business, a recent piece in Government Executive, George Bishop of Public Sector Consortium warns against the belief that business executives are a good fit for public leadership, highlighting the different cultures, languages, and norms within each sector. “These relationships and leadership responsibilities are motivated by very different purposes (profit versus mission accomplished) and require different skills in communication, outreach, negotiation, planning, complexity, HR systems, and shared power to name a few,” he explained.
The programs in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, however, present an alternative to running government more like a business, while retaining the benefits that greater involvement from business-sector talent provides. City governments hold important expertise about the problems facing their communities, but often lack the technology or resources to address these problems. Civic-minded startups see the value of solving these problems and often have the resources to address them, but may not have the knowledge about the issue at hand. These programs are promising in their aim to lead to concrete improvements in City services because they leverage the strengths of each sector and encourage them to solve problems together.