Thinking inside the box: The City’s approach to innovation

When Edward Keenan points out that the City of Toronto hinders innovation, he doesn’t go halfway far enough in his critique. This is unusual, because Keenan often writes what I think, sometimes before I think it, and always more intelligently than in my overwrought postings.

His general point is that the City inhibits innovation in the delivery of services. He excuses this habit, explaining that the work of innovation is more difficult for public sector than for private sector players. Governments are risk averse, being accountable to more stakeholders and operating under greater scrutiny.

He’s right that the City talks a good game, but is more resistant to innovation than it should be.

And he’s wrong. The City’s obligation to serve large, complex constituencies should incentivize innovation, not inhibit it. Bureaucrats should think constantly about improving service delivery, which at the very least means using the commonplace technological tools available to everyone else.

Yes, the City's bureaucratic, change-resistant system has failed to provide simple resources to facilitate innovation of their services. But, the real problem emerges when we ask ourselves, who is actually responsible for improving the delivery of Toronto public services? Clearly, it is the City. So, why is it increasingly left to private (unpaid) citizens, to do the bureaucrats’ jobs for them?

Toronto's 'FUN' guide to program registration. The irony is not lost on us.

The registration process for municipal recreational programs is Keenan’s point of focus in illustrating the lack of innovation in the City. It’s a technically weak system that is overwhelmed during predictable periods of high demand. Not only is it frustrating for users, but it’s also wasteful. It fails to ensure that disappointed applicants are redirected to alternative sites for the programs they seek. So it’s frustrating for program planners and providers as well, who struggle to maximize utilization.

Keenan describes a system that’s ripe for improvement. No innovation is actually required, since the technologies for improvement are readily available. In fact, an annoyed parent, Phil Vlatch, was able to create an app to improve information sharing and booking of recreational programs without investment capital, special equipment, or proprietary software.

The tools were all lying around, waiting to be used. It appears that no one at the City, charged with the efficient booking of recreational programs, felt the impulse to do this as strongly as Vlatch did. Keep in mind, that the recreation registration problem is much older than the "years" to which Keenan ascribes it.

It’s decades old, and in all that time, some clever manager or executive should have assigned this work to a staff member or outside consultant. Improvement of public service delivery systems is the work of public servants. It shouldn’t depend on private citizens, working at their own time and expense, while bureaucrats perpetuate the intolerable status quo.

Keenan tells Vlatch’s story to make an even finer point. Vlatch’s system has to “scrape” data from publicly available PDF documents because the City doesn’t make the program scheduling information available in more useful formats. Again, Keenan is right to point out that the City isn’t helping Vlatch to improve its program delivery, which is dumb. And, again, he’s wrong to stop there.

His conclusion is that the City, which promised to open its data up to more developers like Vlatch, is habitually reluctant to do so. This is a mere hindrance, as his headline suggests, born of an institutional aversion to risk that is in some way appropriate to government.

Keenan's article so badly understates the problem that it verges on untruth. Municipal civil servants are fine people, and it’s impossible to generalize with absolute reliability, but as a group, they have some characteristics that make them allergic to innovation. They enjoy almost incomparable job security, yet, over their unusually long careers in the City’s employ, there are few professional development opportunities. Consequently, those who have risen in the ranks over time are the least informed about the range of solutions available to their counterparts in the private sector. This effect is compounded by the practice of horizontal hopping between departments, which often puts people into areas of responsibility for which they aren’t adequately prepared.

It should be obvious how this impacts the organization’s appetite for innovation. Relatively low turnover rates, higher rates of lateral transfer between departments, weak professional development opportunities, and the pressure of stakeholder accountability that Keenan cites combine to create a civil service that relies on habit more than on innovation in the design and delivery of programs. Perhaps conscious of its own condition, it avoids risk, despite evident need for improvement.

Against the predictable howl of indignation from those who love and admire the cutting edge service delivery practices of municipal bureaucrats, I can only offer some first hand observations and insights.

First, the system design and technologies used to book Toronto’s recreational programs are, not years, as Keenan would have it, but decades behind what’s in common use outside City Hall. If you can’t get into a swimming class at one community centre, the system fails to refer you to the next nearest opening in your area, which is a feature offered by every major online retailer or service provider in the private sector. If you can’t get the car you want from the nearest Zipcar lot, Zipcar will tell you where to go next. Companies do this to ensure that you don’t give up on them and go to a competitor. Of course, the City has no competitor, and monopolies are notorious for their indifference to service improvements.

Second, just as this has more to do with simple improvement than with innovation per se, it has more to do with motivation than with technology. The process of registering for City recreational programs was anachronistic and ineffective long before apps like Vlatch’s were remotely possible. It is a behavioral predisposition of City government, not a technical issue.

I am old enough to remember lining up at a community centre in the 80’s, waiting for the doors to open so that I could fill out a form to reserve a space for my little niece. The lineup formed hours in advance, because space was limited. Working parents couldn’t take time off to register, and City staff didn’t change their schedules to accommodate them. So, not only was this system wildly inefficient, it was also terribly unfair. It favoured those who could spend time standing in line for hours, or those who had nannies to stand in line for them.

None of these facts could have been lost on the City staff who, for many years, had registered children for programs in person this way. Innovation wasn’t required to fix this problem. The telephone had been invented long ago, and every parent could have dialed the City to register, waiting with their calls in sequence while at work. Or, staff could have scheduled weekend or evening registrations to fairly accommodate working parents. But the need for that improvement didn’t seep into the City’s consciousness for years after I, a lone, suited consultant, stood in a line of Asian women rocking strollers with irritable white babies in them, while inside, a beleaguered bureaucrat waited, checked his watch, and waited some more, before opening the door to start processing applicants.

I maintain that Keenan hasn’t identified a new or recent problem, that innovation isn’t required to improve program delivery, and that improvement is delayed, not by the complexity of serving many stakeholders in a public institution, but by the lack of motivation and expertise required to risk making changes of any kind.

On this final point, Keenan seems not to wonder who would lead innovation at the City if the institution was indeed committed to this purpose. Yet that is precisely the question that must be asked if there is any hope of accelerating 21st century public sector service delivery practices to catch up with the efficiency and effectiveness of late 20th century private sector practices.

To put it diplomatically, there are many people in municipal government who are unsuited to their positions. Their talents aren’t aligned with their employment. Naturally, this occurs elsewhere, but with far less frequency because the City operates under employment rules that private sector companies couldn’t follow.

I first encountered this in a series of group meetings and interviews with hundreds of City staff during the Miller years. I was initially struck by how many people had worked more than a decade or two for a single employer, which isn’t nearly as common in the private or voluntary sectors. After hearing their stories, I was even more amazed at how their seniority had enabled them to seek positions elsewhere within the City. I met people who had virtually restarted their careers with little or no specialized training. Every time they changed departments, they inherited a way of doing things from incumbent staff, with negligible input from the outside world. While they were very good at what they did, what they did wasn’t necessarily very good from a service delivery perspective. They were creatures of habit, collectively more resistant to change than private sector corporations that are forced to seek talent for innovation in a highly competitive environment.

Even if this peculiar institutional pattern inexplicably bred champions of change, who would follow the leaders? Improvements across a vast program and service delivery network require broad, committed, long-term buy in. Should it be surprising that it took decades to switch from lining up at community centres to register in person, and decades more to add online service to telephones, and years more, as Keenan now reports, to tweak the online system with minor capacity improvements? Or, is it surprising that private sector service innovations actually resulted in performance improvements, from an end user perspective, decades before adoption by public sector institutions?

In the late ‘80’s, I reproduced typed government forms for financial reporting and grant applications in an off-the-shelf spreadsheet program, and I offered the templates to a federal agency on a disk for free distribution to all of their clients. It was declined. Nineteen years later, NetGain was engaged to help design precisely the same utility, for online use. All it did was speed up the application process for clients, improve the accuracy of financial reporting, and streamline the analysis of data for government, so I guess there was no rush.

It is in the nature of government to resist improvement, not just because innovation is difficult, but also because public service motives are different than private sector motives. It is not the complexity of stakeholder relationships that make governments behave this way, as Keenan suggests - it is more fundamental than that. In a habit-formed bureaucracy, the incentive to change is weaker than the incentive to repeat past behaviors until crisis forces change. When circumstance compels a bureaucracy to change, civil servants are absolved of blame for the outcome because they had no choice. In contrast, if they initiate change, they might be at fault if something goes wrong, and their long, safe, careers might be jeopardized. The fact that something is already wrong – very wrong – is not the City’s fault, provided it can always be said that the practice was used in the past and had worked well enough until now, as in the case of recreation program registrations.

So that’s my amplification of Keenan’s case. Nothing innovative is required to improve public sector practices that have been obsolete for decades in the private sector. Moreover, the special role of government cannot be used as an excuse for an anti-innovation culture. With many powerful stakeholder groups to satisfy, efficiently and effectively, an innovation culture should be recognized as a necessity.

To illustrate this, let’s take Keenan’s case one step further. In the private sector, innovation isn’t something that can be hindered or inhibited; it’s an essential business function, like marketing or finance. It’s critical to competitiveness. If you can’t innovate quickly enough on your own, you buy innovative concepts from others, or buy other companies outright, along with their most talented engineers, designers, and patents.

Rather than chiding the City for failing to provide Vlatch with better data, Keenan should be railing at the City for failing to provide its own staff with a mandate to develop a similar app years ago, or for failing to purchase Vlatch’s solution, or for failing to fund continuous improvement of Vlatch’s app, integrating it thoroughly into the City’s transaction system and online offerings. Instead, the City persists in its old practices for as long as it can, refusing to embrace outsiders who want to help make improvements, or grudgingly agreeing to provide source data to the public so that those outside City Hall can accomplish what those inside are mandated to do.

Keenan should be calling for innovation of structures, systems, policies, and programs, to create an innovation culture within City Hall. Then we might be able to talk about how program and service delivery can be improved by the City for the public, rather than by the public for the City. Good on Vlatch for his effort but think how many Vlatchs it would take to address similar challenges in all the other areas of service delivery that need attention.

Repeating an old NetGain theme, Toronto’s procurement practices could be reformed to have a big impact on innovation inside and outside City Hall. We spend a lot of time and money educating entrepreneurs in business incubators and accelerators in and around Toronto. Our most promising entrepreneurs tend to leave home after they’ve absorbed all the support we can give them, and just before they capitalize and establish themselves somewhere else. Expert diagnoses for this brain drain differ, but whether it’s a lack of venture capital or a lack of industry expertise and guidance, the retention of promising new Toronto startups, and the attraction of capital and expertise, would be a whole lot easier if the City of Toronto had a procurement system that made it easier for new companies to make a sale in their home town.

Under the current procurement rules and practices for competitive bidding, would a guy like Vlatch be a strong contender for a City contract to do what he’s already done? It’s doubtful. Toronto spends more than $1 billion annually on the purchase of goods and services, but doesn’t do so in a way that stimulates local business. Nor does it have much appetite for innovation. As elsewhere in the City, no one will be blamed for buying a familiar product or service from a familiar provider. The same can’t be said of a purchase of an innovative new product or service from a local company.

A city that’s serious about innovation might start with a rethink of procurement, because a first sale can make or break an emerging company in its first year. This is only one of the policy levers the City can pull to encourage innovation in its own practices and beyond. But it could be the start of a culture change that fosters innovation and considers it in other aspects of government structures, systems, and programs.

Open data is great, but I’ve been to enough public-spirited hackathons to know that the excitement of breakthrough apps can be quickly crushed by intransigent public officials who aren’t committed to improving their practices, or who feel threatened by the pace of change outside City Hall. Clever, well-intentioned people have collectively devoted vast amounts of time and hope to data collection, analysis, and visualization to help Torontonians. The uptake by City government is too slow.

Innovation requires real leadership, investment, and commitment. Toronto has real time problems and opportunities that cannot be solved by unfunded volunteers, or by reluctant adoption of obsolete technologies.

If the admirable Keenan had said all this, I wouldn’t have felt it necessary to, and then you’d have been spared the pain of reading it. So if you’ve got any criticism, direct it to him, not me.

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