Effective, Efficient and Innovative Government? Here’s How.

There might be gridlock in Washington, but across the country, mayors are embracing innovations that improve services and save money.

Technological innovation has revolutionized our world and the way we interact with it. Smart phones, Wi-Fi, and cloud computing have disrupted traditional industries and transformed the consumer experience.  The next technological revolution—whether in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, or energy storage—will drive the next chapters of the human narrative.

In contrast, government has adopted innovation at a notoriously slow rate.  All too often, navigating the Department of Motor Vehicles, waiting through Customs at the airport, or applying for a building permit resembles the experience of 40 years ago.

But it doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to be that way.

As mayors serving three cities participating in the “What Works Cities initiative” launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies, we have doubled down on innovation as a central tenet of 21st century governance. Our conviction is increasingly shared by many local leaders in cities whose geographies, finances and demographics vary widely.  Cities have increasingly become models for how government can work, focusing on improving service delivery without the partisanship, posturing, and polarization that paralyzes federal and state action.

In Louisville, we have equipped asthma inhalers with GPS devices to help track data to look for trends and ways to reduce asthma in the city.

In addition to offering free Wi-Fi in public housing communities, parks and along major thoroughfares, San Francisco is hiring a Chief Digital Services Officer to launch a new strategy to deliver more responsive online services.

In San Jose, we sought to close the digital divide through demonstrating next-generation technologies, such as Facebook’s Terragraph, which will provide free, gigabit Wi-Fi internet access to communities in San José.

Cities will serve as the incubators for innovation because our constituents demand it. Regardless of ideology, all of our residents expect quality police, fire, transportation and water services.  The private sector has also created expectations for instant service—from live-streaming movies to delivering groceries to hailing a ride—with the touch of a smartphone’s screen.  Consumers of public sector services increasingly expect the same, and local governments must keep up if they are to maintain the trust of the public and better serve their residents. Against a backdrop of fast-rising service delivery costs, burgeoning populations, and growing expectations, mayors must find ways to do more with less; that requires innovation.

By embracing innovation, cities can better leverage scarce resources to achieve more – for example, by helping leaders understand which programs work best and why or by helping programs work more efficiently and effectively. As the statistician W. Edwards Deming once said: “In God we trust. All others must bring data.”

Through the use of the right data, we can pinpoint the publicly-funded programs that have a clear, measurable impact and that deserve to receive funding and scale. We can reallocate resources from programs that fail to demonstrate results to those that do.  Using data, for example, we can better deploy police officers to anticipate crime “hot spots,” optimize trash collection routes, reduce traffic collisions, and improve emergency medical response.

Innovation can also help cities stretch dollars. Even as residents’ expectations rise, local budgets are remaining flat. Innovative technologies can provide “force multipliers” for resource-strapped staff, such as by moving permitting services online.

But innovation can also do much more than provide basic services more cheaply and efficiently; it can enable local governments to offer a broad array of new services that can boost economic mobility and combat inequality. We can enhance classroom learning with educational software such as from Khan Academy or Coursera.  We can transform libraries into job training facilities for unemployed adults.  We can personalize the pace of learning and pedagogy to the unique needs of students.   Although technology too often has widened the gulf between haves and have-nots in our economy, we can use those same tools to the broaden opportunity to many.

While many cities have taken big leaps forward toward modern, innovative government, they can’t do it alone. America’s major cities need continued partnership from the next presidential administration to support ongoing innovation and to help more cities embrace this new approach. The Obama Administration, for example, has launched a number of innovation efforts – including a TechHire initiative that helps train workers for tech-enabled jobs and a “Smart Cities” initiative to help cities tackle key challenges and reduce traffic congestion, fight crime, foster economic growth and more. Efforts like these have helped cities accelerate the deployment of innovative new strategies and are a model for the next administration to follow.

If we leave innovation to the private sector alone, those who depend so greatly on public sector help will suffer.   Government cannot afford to fall behind; we must instead “lean in” on innovation.  With many other mayors of forward-leaning cities, we call on the next Administration to move forward with us.

Greg Fischer, Edwin M. Lee and Sam Liccardo

Greg Fischer is the Mayor of Louisville, Kentucky; Edwin M. Lee is the Mayor of San Francisco, California; and Sam Liccardo is the Mayor of San Jose, California.