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Public Administration: Smart Cities

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Carla Mays
February 3, 2017

Today’s public administrator needs a new skillset to innovate and manage in the 21st century. These skills include: cross-sector relations; business and finance modeling for technology; digital infrastructure planning; cybersecurity and threat analysis; data privacy; and ethics training.

In 2016, my research associate David Capelli and I spent several months in Canada studying smart cities, focusing on public private partnerships, infrastructure and community and economic development. We noticed the big difference was the Canadian people first approach versus the American technology first style. Canadians focus deeply on the public good, equity and access at the municipal level versus what Americans focus on: data collection, government as a start-up and moving toward a more digital government.

In America, this is driving both digital and economic divides by not addressing connectivity and inequity challenges. This jeopardizes access to our democracy and equal access to goods and services as government platforms rise without taking a hard stance on closing the digital and opportunity divides in technology. The fact technology and government technology lacks diversity in race and economics causes design challenges in service delivery and platform deployments. Most Chief Innovation Officers (CIO), Chief Technology Officers (CTO) and Chief Data Officers lack basic understanding of public administration (the public good), and most public sector and nonprofit leaders lack technology and business training to understand real cost, impacts on labor market, product life cycles, maintenance, cybersecurity and privacy, etc. This is causing the deep societal challenges we see on the streets of urban America in the lack of access to and information about housing, jobs, goods and services. Too many issues with data privacy, predictive analytics and civil rights.skyscraper-450793_640-1

My city of San Francisco is the epicenter of this crisis. However, our city is more financially and technically able to deal with this than most. The city has access to technology talent, multilayers of technology sector support and governmental aid as it is the federal hub of the west coast.

Other cities should not mimic these approaches as it will breed negative externalities they cannot mitigate. Instead we should focus on the root cause mitigation of connectivity first. This means examining cities like Santa Monica, California and their municipal fiber network and other multi-digital infrastructure projects improves connectivity. Connectivity is the public good of smart and connected cities. This must be our number one priority in smart cities, government and civic technology and innovation must be connective and equal access. Our number two priority must be equity and inclusion to pathways to government and civic technology careers and contracts. This is needed to design and deploy the right digital solutions and infrastructure for a multicultural and inclusive economic society.

Public administration’s role has changed and will be evolving to match the innovation cycles of technology. This means administrators must be agile to meet digital infrastructure needs and create opportunities for jobs and contracting to grow community and economic development versus volunteer, non-paid opportunities, hackathons, pitches and challenges that do not provide a real pathway forward to solving serious pain points for government and residents. This is also aiding in our lack of diversity and inclusion as these ways of sourcing innovation and problem solving require substantial economic investment and networks to attend and/or to carry to implementation within a municipality.

These barriers to entry must be removed as they are impeding process in moving forward on solving connectivity, community and economic development and causing a host of inequalities, cybersecurity and privacy issues. Real pathways are paid internships which lead to jobs, contracts for projects which fuel startups and small business creation, partnerships and collaborations for infrastructure grants, and a host of other economic drivers for smart city ecosystems. We have learned a lot over the last eight years in government and civic technology. Now we must move into the mainstream on scaling and managing connectivity, developing and managing digital infrastructure, and driving community and economic development for inclusive and vibrant communities.

Instead of investing in moonshots, public administrators need to get grounded on what matters in public good and access to civic engagement, affordable housing, transportation and city services. Smart cities need smart public administration with administrators that are knowledgeable and mindful of technology pitfalls in access, affordability, connectivity, cyberthreats, privacy, jobs and contracting opportunities. Public sector helps to reshape the culture of technology first and apologize later in technology deployments. This erodes democracy when the very platforms and digital services are not accessible to all in society. This is not civic engagement; this is a marginalization underserved residents. These digital platforms should never be deployed without an “offline/online” strategy to avoid community access challenges.

Cities must consider minority contracting and career pathways to recruit local diverse civic technologists and entrepreneurs into government. This improves connectivity, community and economic development. Too often cities look for employees from others cities versus growing from the community. This is a big mistake! It’s always better to hire local and spend more on professional development in the form of executive courses, conferences and webinars.

Your employees are only as updated as the last thing they attended. Knowledge is king as things are moving too fast to be experience based. We will have to adopt a more military active/emergency management theatre way of management in the smart city.


Author: Carla Mays, MPA - Innovation Economy & Smart Cities ~ Researcher, Advisor & Techie, Singularity University Impact Fellow 2016-17

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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