Can governments innovate?

Among the many articles/blogs about Steve Jobs after his death were two in Governing Magazine last month.  One was by Robert Knisely, entitled “What Government Can (and Can’t) Learn From Steve Jobs”.  (See ttp://www.governing.com/blogs/bfc/steve-jobs-management-leadership-lessons-government.html .)

The other was by Ken Miller, entitled “Steve Jobs’ Legacy For Government” (http://www.governing.com/blogs/public-great/Steve-Jobs-Legacy-for-Government.html).  Miller argues that public leaders can adopt (adapt?) Jobs’ pattern of passion and his focus on user-centered design and simplicity.  (On a personal level, Miller suggests that public leaders adopt Jobs’ attitude to life.)

At the heart of this debate is whether government can innovate.  

First there is the assumption that public services are inherently boring.  As Miller writes:

We don’t make shiny gadgets or deliver entertainment. Our stuff isn’t magical or sexy.

Our public parks do deliver entertainment.  Everyday in public school rooms, many students are exposed to delightful experiences.  Even the creation of a water system or a highway can seem magical to those living outside big cities where these are now taken for granted, but weren’t even normal there not that long ago.

Then there is the assumption that public officials are inherently conservative.  It is true that they most often hear from the established parts of society – those who have been successful by whatever the rules have been, rather than those who are creating the new rules.  And the media does a good job of discouraging innovations by highlighting and exaggerating any failure, when some failures are a natural part of the innovation process.

Nevertheless, there is such a thing as innovation in public services and there is evidence of it, particularly at the sub-national level of government.  

Also, as politicians, public officials have the skills to accomplish dramatic organizational change if they put their minds to the task.  Indeed, they are much better organizational leaders than the typical business executive.

Today, with a majority of citizens connected via the Internet, the opportunities to be innovative in government are greater than at any time in the past.

So we should encourage public officials to innovate more.  And we should remind them of the words of perhaps America’s most successful politician, President Franklin Roosevelt:

"The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. .. We need enthusiasm, imagination …”

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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Real Jobs or Real Income?

Another part of my work on economic growth is focused on how the traditional job in the traditional large corporation is becoming a relic of the past.  It came out of an industrial era in which large corporate bureaucracies were created for reasons of efficiency.  See the economist Ronald Coase’s classic work on the theory of the firm.

The internet, however, has made it easier for people to collaborate in a more informal way and to create projects of great value – such as Linux and Wikipedia.  I describe this as a movement from Coase to Shirky (author of Here Comes Everybody).

This role of the Internet has already begun to affect the economy.  So it was with interest that there was some recent publicity on CNBC and MSNBC about the success of Thumbtack and ODesk, which help people find income on the Internet, rather than finding traditional jobs.  See, for example, “Online Work Replacing Full-Time Employment: Record Unemployment, Recession Mentality Lead Companies to Alternative Hiring Strategies” at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44017638

The MSNBC interview of ODesk’s Gary Swart was frustrating to watch as he and the reporter kept talking past each other.  The reporter kept saying that these were not “real jobs”.  Mr Swart was diplomatic enough not to argue that those “real jobs” were no longer so real.  Nor did he offer the rejoinder that many of people who use his service to identify sources of income were probably quite pleased to be able to have the flexibility that Internet work provides.  These people also find they make more money than they would make at a so-called “real job” flipping burgers.

Even in an economy with traditional job unemployment measuring at anywhere from 9-18%, most Americans are concerned – perhaps not so much about “jobs”, but about the fact that their real income has gone down, even if they have a real job.  Anything that boosts their income is positive and an indicator of the strategy for the future.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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Are Top Government Officials Trying To Make Too Many Decisions?

One of the most popular recent articles on the New York Times website was John Tierney’s “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html .    It outlines the ideas he writes about in “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” which comes out next month.  

He points out how the quality of decisions declines as too many are made, in part because the decision makers have not conserved their willpower for the tough decisions.

The immediate thought is that this explains a lot about what has been happening with decisions by the Presidents/governors/mayors and their legislative bodies.  Are they too suffering from decision fatigue?

In this day of total communications via the Internet is this fatigue worsening? 

Or does the Internet offer a way for officials to devolve their overtaxing decision making to more citizens via the Internet?

What do you think?

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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Does Government Have To Be Perfect?

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, March 1, 2010.]

“A group of leading social and information scientists and government practitioners met February 23-24, 2010 at the National Science Foundation (NSF) to lay out a research agenda to address grand challenges in information, technology, and governance.” – as the organizers of the workshop described it.

I was among the three dozen people who participated in this wide ranging discussion about the various trends in government and its use of technology.  But there was one critical, if unstated, question that was just below the surface in most of these discussions: how perfect does government have to be?

Traditionally, most government leaders would say that the public sector is expected never to make mistakes – although plenty of mistakes do happen.  Some of the participants in the workshop pointed out the various ways that e-government systems are vulnerable or can be the source of erroneous information.

Certainly, in some areas – such as protection of children from parental abuse – a single mistake can have tragic, fatal consequences.  But not all imperfections in government are that serious nor does every program area result in fatal tragedy when things go wrong.   Nevertheless, many elected officials feel they live in a world where the slightest imperfection is blown up in the next day’s media reports. 

In the face of the intensely combative style of politics that many of us have gotten used to, it is difficult to imagine getting a break from voters for any imperfection.  But consider the expectations that people have developed as the Internet has become a more important part of their lives.

One of the most successful Internet websites and perhaps the best example of Internet-based collaboration and collective action is the open encyclopedia, WikipediaClay Shirky, in his compelling book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations”, compares Wikipedia to traditional encyclopedia companies.

“Wikipedia … a chaotic process, with unpredictable and wildly uneven contributions, made by nonexpert contributors acting out of variable motivations, is creating a global resource of tremendous daily value.  A commercial producer of encyclopedias has to be efficient about finding and fixing mistakes… Wikipedia … does not have to be efficient it merely has to be effective.  If enough people see an article, the chance that an error will be caught and fixed improves with time.  Because Wikipedia is a process, not a product, it replaces guarantees offered by institutions with probabilities supported by process: if enough people care enough about an article to read it, then enough people will care enough to improve it, and over time this will lead to a large enough body of good enough work to begin to take both availability and quality of articles for granted, and to integrate Wikipedia into daily use by millions.”

To the point about quality, researchers have found that the error rate in Wikipedia articles is no worse than those in the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

With Wikipedia as just one example of the kind of Internet-based activity that people value, despite its short term imperfections, is it possible that citizens may be more open to a similar approach in the public sector? an approach that emphasizes citizen engagement (and even citizen delivery of services to other citizens), despite the imperfections of citizens, in contrast to the promise of perfection by government agencies?

Because it is seems so difficult to get things done perfectly in government, many newly elected officials start out proclaiming one or two major goals they want to accomplish.  Often, the major consequence of this approach is to make it easier for political opponents to know what to attack. 

The alternative that is more in synch with the way people increasingly operate on the Internet is to start many more than just a couple of initiatives, with a promise only of improvement, but not perfection. 

There are two other benefits.  First, this certainly makes it harder for those who oppose you merely for political reasons to decide what to attack.  Second, and partly because of the first benefit, you may find that only 5 of 100 initiatives fail. The rest eventually succeed in providing improvements that are visible and supported by the voters. 

So perhaps government does not have to try to be perfect all the time and if it doesn’t try to be perfect, it may actually work better.

For more about Wikipedia and its implications, one of the best recent books is: “The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia” by Andrew Lih.  See http://www.amazon.com/Wikipedia-Revolution-Nobodies-Greatest-Encyclopedia/dp/B002KAOS60/d

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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http://www.authorstream.com/player.swf?p=1158385_634496571499335000&pt=3

I put together this PowerPoint to help government officials understand how the Internet is changing people’s perception about how government should operate and to scare them a bit if they don’t respond to this trend.  It is intentionally edgy and provocative.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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The Misalignment Between The Economic Success of Local Government and Their Residents

As you can see from some of the other posts here, at the request of the US Conference of Mayors, I’ve been focusing on an economic development strategy that will work in the future.  As a result of that work, I’ve been presenting my ideas in many places and before many audiences, generally including mayors or other senior officials of local government.

Without going into the whole line of reasoning, I discuss the combined effects of (1) a future with ubiquitous high quality communications and (2) the shift of the labor force to providing ideas and other intangible services.  One implication of these trends is the disaggregation of the monolithic big company that would concentrate jobs in a city and, as an alternative, the empowerment of fluid teams of individuals.

To drive the point home, I argue that the true measure of the economic success of a city is the sum (or the median?) of the income and wealth of its residents – and not the total sales of companies that might have a local postal address there.  

In what sometimes comes across as a provocative statement, but isn’t, I put up an equation: economic growth does not equal real estate development.   I say that because a large part of the economic development expenditures of local governments have been about real estate development.

A few times in recent weeks, I’ve met with mayors or economic development directors who understand exactly what I’m talking about and see the future as I present it.  Then comes the response: “We should be thinking about the amount of money in the pockets of our residents, but you’re missing something here.  Our business – the city government – is mostly dependent upon property taxes and commercial real estate is the golden goose that lays most of those tax eggs.  We focus on real estate development because that’s where we get the return in the form of taxes later.”

That’s a fair argument for the year 2011, as far as it goes.  Of course, often what is a key part of the incentive package is a reduced property tax bill.  More important, commercial real estate will have a hard time maintaining itself in the face of the trends that I discuss.  Indeed, over the last ten years, many big companies have found that they need half the square footage per employee that they used to.  Even now, many employees telecommute or operate remotely somewhere out of the office.  So in the long run, this equation between real estate development and economic growth will break down.

This raises a more serious public policy question, though.  How did we get into such a situation where a smart mayor realizes that the economic success of the city government is misaligned with the success of the city’s residents?  And, for the viability of our democracy, how do we align these?

Or, if you want to ask a related and more pragmatic question: if the goose that laid the golden eggs – commercial real estate – is getting ready to retire, what replaces it?  

Either way you look at it, local governments in the United States need to shift away from their dependence on commercial property taxes.  There are various alternatives that cities have been forced to pursue and may have to depend on more.  Some examples: income taxes, property taxes on residences (which the Internet has now also made places of work and shopping) or even sales taxes on the goods/services that are sold directly into residences.  I’m not suggesting that any of these is perfect or even good, but they all share one characteristic – the revenue base grows as the city’s residents have more money in their pockets.

Whichever of these or other possibilities is selected, cities and counties will be forced to align their financial success with the economic success of their residents.  This is a good thing for their residents because their local government will then emphasize the development of each resident’s income potential.  Even from the narrow interest of the government as a business, this is a good thing because government will have a more assured revenue stream that is appropriate for a 21st century economy.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis 

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Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, April 27, 2009.]

This post is not about a completely new idea, at least not for readers of this blog. It is a continuation and reinforcement of an earlier post, titled “Create Public Services By Enabling People To Serve Each Other”, in which I described the idea of government leaders facilitating citizen collaboration as a way of delivering at least the first line of public services. We’re not talking about just getting citizen “input”, but instead this is about creating citizen action.

The reason for this posting is an article in today’s New York Times Business Section,titled “Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer.” It describes the way that Verizon uses unpaid volunteers to supply customer service — http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/business/26unbox.html

If you remember the last post, this isn’t new. Among other companies, ATT has done the same thing for awhile at http://forums.wireless.att.com/cng/. But the article describes in some detail how Verizon runs this service and what motivates the minority of volunteers who are willing stand up and become leaders of the volunteer community. 

In government, we would call these people auxiliary deputies in a police force or doyennes in a special park.As I noted before, what these private companies have learned is that people who do not work for the company are often more credible with other customers than employees. 

When these companies use these public forums, of course, they need to have a certain tolerance for criticism. Looked at the right way, though, this criticism is a form of free market research and can alert a company early to a brewing problem before that problem gets completely out of hand. That same logic applies to government. 

Given the declining fiscal outlook for the next few years, citizen collaboration may be the only way that some public services can be adequately sustained in the future. I suppose that Verizon, which arguably does not have the greatest reputation for customer service, feels that it cannot do any worse with volunteers. That Verizon can get people to do this is a marvel to me. It should be much easier in the public sector, since people have a direct interest in the success of their community and government.

And government can start with some basic services where the only necessary expertise is having gone through the process before. So, a senior who has gone through the process of applying for “meals on wheels” or para-transit can help a senior who hasn’t done so yet. Similarly, a parent with older kids can be the one who can explain how to another parent with younger kids how to enroll for Parks Department programs. 

What examples can you add to this list? Please write to me at njacknis@cisco.com

© 2011 Norman Jacknis 

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/8958407190/customer-service-ask-a-volunteer]

Government Consists Of Conversations

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, December 6, 2009.]

More than ten years ago, in what many governments considered the early days of the Internet, a now classic book, “The Cluetrain Manifesto”, was written for and about the Internet.  The authors began the book with what they called 95 Theses, which they hoped that businesses would follow as they established a presence on the Internet – instead of using the Internet the way they had used all other forms of public communications.

These statements, though, have as much, if not more, relevance to government.  So – with extraordinary respect for the original authors – I decided to take their basic 95 Theses and substitute public sector words where they had words from the business world.  The result is below.  Hopefully this will trigger some new perspectives on your part as well.

  1. Governing consists of conversations.
  2. Society consists of human beings, not demographic sectors.
  3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
  4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
  5. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.
  6. The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
  7. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.
  8. In both internetworked citizenry and among intranetworked employees, people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.
  9. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.
  10. As a result, citizens are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked society changes people fundamentally.
  11. People in networked societies have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from government agencies. So much for government rhetoric about the value of their professional way of doing things.
  12. There are no secrets. The networked citizenry knows more than governments do about their own services and programs. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.
  13. What’s happening to citizens as a whole is also happening among employees. A metaphysical construct called “The State” is the only thing standing between the two.
  14. Governments do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, governments sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.
  15. In just a few more years, the current homogenized “voice” of government —the sound of mission statements and press releases —will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.
  16. Already, governments that speak in the language of the spin, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone.
  17. Governments that assume online citizens are the same citizens that used to watch their messages on television are kidding themselves.
  18. Governments that don’t realize their citizens are now networked person-to-person, getting smarter as a result and deeply joined in conversation are missing their best opportunity.
  19. Public leaders can now communicate with their citizens directly. If they blow it, it could be their last chance.
  20. Governments need to realize their citizens are often laughing. At them.
  21. Government officials need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humor.
  22. Getting a sense of humor does not mean putting some jokes on the government web site. Rather, it requires big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view.
  23. Governments attempting to “position” themselves need to take a position. Optimally, it should relate to something their citizens actually care about.
  24. Bombastic boasts—”We are positioned to become the preeminent nation/state/county/city“—do not constitute a position.
  25. Government officials need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.
  26. Public Relations does not relate to the public. Governments are deeply afraid of their citizens.
  27. By speaking in language that is distant, uninviting, arrogant, they build walls to keep citizens at bay.
  28. Most news releases, press conferences, and other government “messaging” programs are based on the fear that the citizens might see what’s really going on inside the government.
  29. Elvis said it best: “We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.”
  30. Patriotic loyalty is the government version of going steady, but the breakup is inevitable—and coming fast. Because they are networked, smart citizens are able to renegotiate relationships with blinding speed.
  31. Networked citizens can change which government officials they prefer overnight. Networked knowledge workers can change employers over lunch. Your own service reductions, furloughs and layoffs taught us to ask the question: “Loyalty? What’s that?”
  32. Smart citizens will find public leaders who speak their own language.
  33. Learning to speak with a human voice is not a parlor trick. It can’t be “picked up” at some tony conference.
  34. To speak with a human voice, public leaders must share the concerns of their communities.
  35. But first, they must belong to a community.
  36. Governments must ask themselves where their bureaucratic cultures end.
  37. If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no support among the citizens.
  38. Human communities are based on discourse—on human speech about human concerns.
  39. The community of discourse is the whole community.
  40. Public leaders who do not belong to a community of discourse will no longer be leaders.
  41. Governments make a religion of security, but this is largely a red herring. Most are protecting less against threats than against their own citizens and workforce.
  42. As with networked citizens, people are also talking to each other directly inside the government—and not just about rules and regulations, executive directives, budgets.
  43. Such conversations are taking place today on departmental intranets. But only when the conditions are right.
  44. Governments typically install intranets top-down to distribute HR policies and other procedural information that workers are doing their best to ignore.
  45. Intranets naturally tend to route around boredom. The best are built bottom-up by engaged individuals cooperating to construct something far more valuable: an intranetworked organizational conversation.
  46. A healthy intranet organizes workers in many meanings of the word. Its effect is more radical than the agenda of any union.
  47. While this scares companies witless, they also depend heavily on open intranets to generate and share critical knowledge. They need to resist the urge to “improve” or control these networked conversations.
  48. When intranets are not constrained by fear and legalistic rules, the type of conversation they encourage sounds remarkably like the conversation of the networked citizens.
  49. Org charts worked in an older economy where plans could be fully understood from atop steep management pyramids and detailed work orders could be handed down from on high.
  50. Today, the org chart is hyperlinked, not hierarchical. Respect for hands-on knowledge wins over respect for abstract authority.
  51. Command-and-control management styles both derive from and reinforce bureaucracy, power tripping and an overall culture of paranoia.
  52. Paranoia kills conversation. That’s its point. But lack of open conversation kills the effectiveness of government.
  53. There are two conversations going on. One inside the government. One with the citizens.
  54. In most cases, neither conversation is going very well. Almost invariably, the cause of failure can be traced to obsolete notions of command and control.
  55. As policy, these notions are poisonous. As tools, they are broken. Command and control are met with hostility by intranetworked knowledge workers and generate distrust in internetworked societies.
  56. These two conversations want to talk to each other. They are speaking the same language. They recognize each other’s voices.
  57. Smart companies will get out of the way and help the inevitable to happen sooner.
  58. If willingness to get out of the way is taken as a measure of IQ, then very few governments have yet wised up.
  59. However subliminally at the moment, millions of people now online perceive government agencies as little more than quaint legal fictions that are actively preventing these conversations from intersecting.
  60. This is suicidal. Citizens want to talk to public leaders.
  61. Sadly, the part of the government a networked citizenry wants to talk to is usually hidden behind a smokescreen of hucksterism, of language that rings false—and often is.
  62. Citizens do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the bureaucratic firewall.
  63. De-cloaking, getting personal: We are those citizens. We want to talk to you.
  64. We want access to your government information, to your plans and strategies, your best thinking, your genuine knowledge. We will not settle for the 4-color brochure, for web sites chock-a-block with eye candy but lacking any substance.
  65. We’re also the workers who make your agencies go. We want to talk to citizens directly in our own voices, not in platitudes written into a script.
  66. As citizens, as workers, both of us are sick to death of getting our information by remote control. Why do we need faceless reports and third-hand studies to introduce us to each other?
  67. As citizens, as workers, we wonder why you’re not listening. You seem to be speaking a different language.
  68. The inflated self-important jargon you sling around—in the press, at your conferences—what’s that got to do with us?
  69. Maybe you’re impressing your media acolytes or your contributors or your peers. Maybe you’re impressing Wall Street. You’re not impressing us.
  70. If you don’t impress us, your supporters are going to be wasting their effort and money. Don’t they understand this? If they did, they wouldn’t let you talk that way.
  71. Your tired notions of “the citizens” make our eyes glaze over. We don’t recognize ourselves in your policies —perhaps because we know we’re already elsewhere.
  72. We like this new polity much better. In fact, we are creating it.
  73. You’re invited, but it’s our world. Take your shoes off at the door. If you want to barter with us, get down off that camel!
  74. We are immune to public relations spin. Just forget it.
  75. If you want us to talk to you, tell us something. Make it something interesting for a change.
  76. We’ve got some ideas for you too: some new tools we need, some better service. Stuff we’d be willing to pay taxes for. Got a minute?
  77. You’re too busy “doing business” to answer our email? Oh gosh, sorry, gee, we’ll come back later. Maybe.
  78. You want us to pay taxes? We want you to pay attention.
  79. We want you to drop your trip, come out of your neurotic self-involvement, join the party.
  80. Don’t worry, you can still hold power. That is, as long as it’s not the only thing on your mind.
  81. Have you noticed that, in itself, power is kind of one-dimensional and boring? What else can we talk about?
  82. Your services are broke. Why? We’d like to ask the guys who deliver them. Your vision for society makes no sense. We’d like to have a chat with the President/Prime Minister/Governor/Mayor. What do you mean she’s not in?
  83. We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal.
  84. We know some people from your government. They’re pretty cool online. Do you have any more like that you’re hiding? Can they come out and play?
  85. When we have questions we turn to each other for answers. If you didn’t have such a tight rein on “your people” maybe they’d be among the people we’d turn to.
  86. When we’re not busy being your “voters,” many of us are your people. We’d rather be talking to friends online than watching the clock. That would get your name around better than your entire million dollar web site. But you tell us speaking to the citizen is the Public Information Officer’s job.
  87. We’d like it if you got what’s going on here. That’d be real nice. But it would be a big mistake to think we’re holding our breath.
  88. We have better things to do than worry about whether you’ll change in time to get our votes. Government and politics is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?
  89. We have real power and we know it. If you don’t quite see the light, some other public leader will come along that’s more attentive, more interesting, more fun to play with.
  90. Even at its worst, our newfound conversation is more interesting than most legislative proceeding, more entertaining than any photo opportunity, and certainly more true-to-life than the government web sites we’ve been seeing.
  91. Our allegiance is to ourselves—our friends, our new allies and acquaintances, even our sparring partners. Public leaders that have no part in this world, also have no future.
  92. Governments are spending [spent] billions of dollars on Y2K. Why can’t they hear this citizen timebomb ticking? The stakes are even higher.
  93. We’re both inside the government and outside it. The boundaries that separate our conversations look like the Berlin Wall today, but they’re really just an annoyance. We know they’re coming down. We’re going to work from both sides to take them down.
  94. To traditional governments, networked conversations may appear confused, may sound confusing. But we are organizing faster than they are. We have better tools, more new ideas, no rules to slow us down.
  95. We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting.

You can find most of the original book at http://www.cluetrain.com

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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Dirty Jobs

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, November 1, 2009.]

Tuesday is another election day.  It’s especially important to many local elected officials since so many local elections occur this year.  As this election season comes to a close, there is that frustrating feeling among public leaders that many voters just don’t understand what the government does. 

Sure, the obvious public services – for example, public safety and education – are known.  But the full extent of government services is unknown to great numbers of those who benefit from those services.

What can be done about this?  Some governments have taken ideas from non-fiction cable television channels, including two mainstays of the Discovery Channel – Dirty Jobs and Mythbusters.

With the low cost of video equipment, this is easy to do.  There are even products now, like the Flip HD video cameras that are smaller than a cell phone, easy to use and quick to upload to the web.

Miami-Dade County has created a series of videos that show some of the “dirty jobs” that County workers do for the public on its “Inside County Jobs” television show.  This started as one-minute video about training of firefighters and led to the realization that Miami-Dade could do more.  See the first installment at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7aivNoPsxg

So, following the model of Discovery’s “Dirty Jobs”, with its own host/participant, there is compelling footage of filling potholes, unplugging storm drains, fixing stop signs, lab testing, trash recycling and the other activities seen and unseen that residents often take for granted.  Here’s another example — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aj7U1A_pq2s

The video is available both on the County website and on YouTube.  In addition to its success with the public, the videos have had a positive effect on employees, who now take to their jobs with a greater sense of purpose and pride.

Westchester County, for example, had a volunteer team put together a movie in the style of a 1930s film noir detective story.  During the course of his investigation, the “detective” interacted with all kinds of county workers.  The County Executive played an abridged version of the movie in one of his “State of the County” speeches in an effort to educate the public about the variety of activities of county government.

Video isn’t the only tool.  The leaders of Oakland County, Michigan, responded to the gaps in public knowledge by taking the “Mythbusters” title to attract attention, but presenting their material on the web.  They tackled some of the toughest issues posing a question in True/False form and then busting the myth for the wrong answer.  

So there is hope to engage a distracted public and upgrade their knowledge of what your government does, by using some of the inexpensive tools now available.  Your creativity is the only limit. 

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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Create Public Services By Enabling People To Serve Each Other

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, March 2, 2009.  Since then, I have worked with Oakland County, Michigan to put in place a program like this.  More on that in a later blog post.]

When computers were introduced into white-collar businesses a couple of decades ago, one of the first effects that people noticed was that companies began to shrink the ranks of middle management. Middle managers, whose major job was collecting, summarizing and reporting data to higher management, were no longer needed once the computers could do the same thing, only faster. The very highest management, the CEO, essentially could get direct reports from the lowest person in the hierarchy. This phenomenon was labeled ”disintermediation” because it eliminated the intermediary.

With the presence of personal computers and Internet connections in the majority of American homes, there is now the potential to similarly reduce some of the barriers between you (the chief elected official) and the average citizen. 

Traditionally, the top officials of government would almost always deliver public services through paid civil service staff or the equivalent paid staff in non-profit agencies or private companies through outsourcing contracts. The staff is the intermediary between you and the public.

Doing things this way goes beyond the various forms of citizen suggestions that some government websites offer today – elected officials can actually facilitate the creation of public services by enabling citizens to help each other. 

In the current recession, some leaders will immediately think of the potential cost savings that can occur when shifting some public services from paid staff to volunteer citizens. But an even bigger and longer lasting problem is the pending retirement of the baby boomers, who account for a large fraction of government workers. How will they be replaced? Should their positions be filled or should we look for new ways to deliver services?

The Internet connects citizens to each other and the government; the software technology is available. The missing piece is the leadership to put this new approach in place. 

What kind of services might you start with? One good way to start is the first line of services – for example, finding out how to get a park pass or sign up for ”meals on wheels”. This kind of service does not require years of specialized experience, but just having gone through the process. One slightly more experienced citizen can help another inexperienced citizen with such information. 

If you’re concerned about the quality of information, you can have paid staff monitor the discussions -but that will take considerably less staff than having them answer all of the questions to begin with. The paid staff can then be focused on the more complex problems that do, in fact, require their special skills and background.

And there are three other benefits to this approach. First, it draws more people into the process of governing – voters who might feel more a part of your team or, at least, have a better understanding of what your government deals with. 

Second, when the private sector has set up similar mutual support for its customers, they found that the customers preferred this way of solving problems. Also, many customers felt that someone who was not a paid staff member of the company was more credible. 

Third, although there can be criticisms of the government on these sites, that acts as an early warning system to you as the head of the government. Without this direct citizen support, it might take much longer for you to learn about a festering problem in the bureaucracy, which makes it that much more difficult to fix the problem.

For some examples of how private companies have done this, take a look at these websites:

While these sites mostly use text, it is also possible for citizens to talk to each other as well. And, as you develop more experience with this and network broadband becomes a reality, there are bound to be greater advancements and uses of citizen collaboration to deliver public services.

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© 2011 Norman Jacknis

The Wiki Way To Improve Your Message

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, November 16, 2009.]

We’ve all been reading about wikis for a few years now.  A wiki is a collaborative web site that allows people to make changes to a common document.  The most famous and successful wiki is Wikipedia [www.wikipedia.org], which is a global encyclopedia on almost every imaginable topic – more than three million articles in English alone.

In 2006, the CIA and fifteen other agencies in the intelligence and security community launched Intellipedia, an internal wiki to share information.  Similarly, the State Department, as part of its public diplomacy efforts, created Diplopedia.  

There are lots of uses of wikis in government, which I’ll explore another time.  But I want to focus on an unusual use – marketing.

While we don’t often admit it, many governments engage in what looks like marketing efforts.  Tourism promotion bureaus and, more generally, economic development offices do a lot of marketing to encourage people to come to their location.  Health departments engage in a form of marketing when they encourage residents to exercise and follow other patterns for good health.  Parks departments try to encourage the public to take advantage of the public recreational opportunities they provide, which also looks like marketing.

What all these efforts usually have in common is that they approach the development of their marketing messages in a traditional way.  They sit down together, come up with what they think is the best message and then blast that message out in a variety of ways, hoping for the best.

They may conduct a survey to find out what people want to hear, but usually they can’t afford to do so.  Surveys, though, too start out with the view of the people who design them – much like the way the marketing materials are started.  It’s very much an internal effort.

There have been a small number of attempts to do things differently.  For example, the major developer of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, encourages people to tell them why they love the place.  See http://www.welovesteamboat.com/You can send videos, pictures and stories for a chance to win up to $10,000.   This helps the developer to identify the right message.

Steamboat.jpg 

The theory behind this approach is that your residents, your customers – anyone whom you are aiming your marketing message at – are the people who can best tell you what makes a difference to themselves.  And this is where wikis come into the picture.

Instead of just going from the marketing message straight to its delivery on a large scale, why not try to use a public wiki to refine and modify that message so it says what they want to hear.  This is as simple as posting the marketing materials you’ve developed and letting the public change them.

If opening a wiki to anyone seems too adventurous, then maybe send invitations to a particular part of the public.  For example, in economic development, ask the businesses that came to your area to go to the wiki.  Ask people who actually came to your area as tourists to write what they would tell others to encourage them to come.  Get people who have gone hiking on your trails to add to the description of how wonderful your parks are. 

In case you’re worried that a public wiki could be defaced, it’s worth noting that most wiki software provides for various controls.  Even Wikipedia has its editors and controls to prevent things from getting out of hand.  But they seldom do.  Most people are pretty responsible and other users will help police the website.

And the cost of doing this?  Very little.  There are several good wiki software packages available on the Internet that are free, including the one that Wikipedia uses.  Give it a try – you may be both surprised and pleased by what people tell you are the reasons they use your public services.

PS. For more information about Diplopedia, see http://www.state.gov/m/irm/ediplomacy/115847.htm

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Calculate The Benefits Of Telework

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, March 16, 2009.  Since then, the Federal government has enacted a law enabling its employees to officially use telework.]

Telework is getting a fresh look because the factors that make telecommuting attractive are converging from various directions. 

Telework is a green strategy in both meanings of the word: (1) saving money and (2) doing things that will help reduce greenhouse gases and sustain the environment. 

First, in the current very tight — even dire — financial circumstances of local and state governments, public employees are being asked to accept pay-less workdays, no salary increases and other budget cutting measures. Telecommuting is one way to help employees to reduce their costs of getting to work that will not add anything to your budget.

Telecommuting also helps save money by reducing your costs for operating your buildings. While statistics on this subject are not yet generally available, I can draw upon the experience of Cisco. Converting the employees in one building in San Jose to a less office-oriented work pattern resulted in reduced building costs — a 40% reduction in space per employee and 55% less money spent on IT infrastructure and cabling. And the employees were happier and more productive.

Second, there is also an increasing emphasis in governments not only on developing new policies to sustain the environment, but also to set an example by operating in a greener way. Telecommuting helps reduce greenhouses gases by getting vehicles off the roads, especially during rush hour. (And that again reduces local government costs by reducing highway maintenance.)

Sun Microsystems [now part of Oracle] has had a telework program for 10 years with more than half of its workforce at home or in flexible work spaces. The company found that office equipment consumed twice as much energy in a Sun office as in a home office — 130 watts per hour versus 64. But that was not the greatest factor in greenhouse gas reductions. Employees who eliminated the commute to a Sun office also slashed their carbon footprints, with commuting accounting for more than 98% of each employee’s work-related carbon footprint; running office equipment made up less than 1.7% of a person’s total work-related carbon emissions.Of course, you will want to tally up the benefits of telecommuting for your particular area. 

Fortunately, a pair of dedicated telework experts have made that easy for you by creating a telework calculator at http://undress4success.com/research/telework-savings-calculator/. (While you are there, you might want to take a look at the Undress4Success.com home page for a variety of other telecommuting resources.)

The Telework Calculator has data for every city, county, region, Congressional District, and State, so you can see the results just for your area. There are a couple of dozen metrics, including savings to your government and your employees, as well as the reduction in greenhouse gases. You can even play with the assumptions behind it, such as what percentage of workers could easily switch to telecommuting. Their estimate may be on the high side.Much of the work that government does is especially suitable for telework. 

The Federal government, which has been developing its telework expertise for years, has found that 52% of its employees are eligible for telecommuting. You can find more Federal information at http://www.telework.gov and from the Federal-private sector partnership, the Telework Exchange at http://www.teleworkexchange.com (which also has its own telework calculator).

At the State level, Arizona has led with telework in the Phoenix area. See http://www.teleworkarizona.com for more information. The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance has used this approach to create what is in many ways a virtual, but much more responsive, agency.

Bringing this discussion back to your policy making role, you can use the Telework Calculator to measure the value of telecommuting in your area if every public and private entity ran a telecommuting program. Last week the folks behind the Telework Calculator released a study in which they added up the numbers and suggested that, if telework really took off, “working from home could save United States consumers $228 billion, add $260 billion to companies’ bottom line.” 

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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Smart Communities Can Do Something About The Recession

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, May 11, 2009.]

This week the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) is holding its annual awards ceremony in New York from among the top seven communities around the world who have been the best examples of using broadband technology. While your community may not be in the top 7, many of you have some degree of broadband networks covering a majority of the residents in your area.

The theme is how the governments of smart communities can respond to a deep recession. I’ve been asked to give the keynote speech and so I thought I should devote this post to some of the ideas I’ll be presenting.

The overriding message is quite simple: take advantage of the data network that exists in your community. Using that network wisely can save money in the government, help your residents reduce their costs and even create more wealth in your community – which, of course, is the best way to get out of a recession.

Your government can save money in several ways. First, those organizations that have integrated the controls of their buildings and other physical facilities into their data networks have been able to achieve substantial savings. The State of Missouri, with a thousand buildings, has been able to reduce its energy costs alone by $20 million a year (about a $1 per square foot). 

You can get greater employee productivity by getting public employees out of the office so they can do their work, which is often in the field. The network lets them work where their tasks takes them – while managers can still observe and even participate in that work when necessary. While telecommuting has been a long standing program of many governments, it is time to think of mobile telecommuting instead.

The Internet and network connectivity you have also makes it possible to provide and to use the best, most cost effective software and services. If your government has strong IT capabilities, then offer these services to others so you can spread your IT costs over a larger base. If your government isn’t strong in IT, then use these services since they may be cheaper than trying to do it yourself.

Of course, readers of this blog will not be surprised that I also think that some paid-for government services can instead be provided for free by letting your residents use the Internet to help each other.

You can help your residents reduce their own costs, especially the time and money they spend in traffic and the money they spend on energy use. There are good examples of local governments offering all sorts of network-based services that reduce the time people spend in traffic. Some have even set up smart work centers, which eliminate the need for people to travel all the way downtown, but enable them to virtually participate in the workplace of their employers. You can also eliminate travel for your residents if government services are available over the Internet and on smart phones, instead of just in government offices. These services can now include videoconference meetings over the Internet and real collaborative interaction between public employees and residents.

Through the use of smart home energy controllers (and, beyond that, smart grids) your residents can save money on their energy use. In the Pacific Northwest, one recent trial found that just letting people use the Internet to know about their energy usage and to do something about that no matter where they were resulted in an average energy cost reduction of 10%.

In various ways, the investments that have been made in broadband have direct economic benefits. For example, one study found that every dollar in broadband investments yielded ten in economic growth. And broadband has direct impact on the growth and profitability of businesses. But you can help those businesses learn how to use the Internet better, even offering assistance with Virtual Trade Missions and videoconferencing. 

For many of you, the broadband network investment has been made. Now is the time to use to respond in recessionary times by reducing your government costs, your citizens’ cost of living and by ramping up economic growth.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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Get The Most Out Of Your Construction Money

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, February 23, 2009]

Construction is a major expenditure for state and local governments. This is going to be the case even more as many billions of dollars will go into infrastructure from the Federal Recovery and Reinvestment Act. 

It’s also important to realize that construction costs are a major factor in projects that are not officially called construction projects. For example, over the last few years, many governments have invested in public safety radio projects or broadband projects. While these are about communications and technology, often the construction costs associated with these projects are larger than the cost of acquiring the technology.

So the key question is whether you are getting the most from every dollar spent on construction. The answer is that, if you just let the construction proceed as it always has been done, you are increasingly wasting money.

The construction industry’s productivity picture is below that of US industry, in general. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity in the construction industry has declined since 1968. Stanford University Professor Paul Teicholz reports that”construction work per hourly work hour has gradually declined – over the past 40 years at an average compound rate of -0.59%/year.”  But there is hope on the horizon. 

A few forward thinking architects, engineers, builders and computer experts have banded together to create a new four dimensional approach to construction projects, which goes by the name ”Building Information Modeling” or BIM. Despite the name, BIM can be used in any construction project – highways and sewers, for example – not just buildings.

BIM is still a developing technology and approach, so the most dramatic benefits are still in the future. Already, though, those who have used BIM have seen substantial reductions in costs and shrinkage of project schedules. 

Some have reported reductions of as much as a third over the traditional construction approach. A significant cause of these reductions is that BIM results in a reduction in claims for errors, which traditionally have meant costly rework and ad hoc redesign on the job site. Since BIM coordinates the work of all the trades on a job, it virtually eliminates the problems that ensue when, for example, electrical wiring and water pipes are put in the same place.BIM also enables the prefabrication of customized components. 

This gives you the savings of pre-fab manufactured buildings, without the need to conform to the manufacturer’s stock designs. For example, a 50 foot component wall could be built off site from the specifications and just be put into place. 

The US General Services Administration (GSA) has started to require firms who construct federal buildings to use BIM. Hopefully, State and Local governments will also start to require BIM of their construction bidders.

For further information about BIM, the best starting point is a 12 minute video that GSA prepared about their”Journey Into Building Information Modeling” at http://www.gsa.gov/Portal/gsa/ep/contentView.do?contentType=GSA_BASIC&contentId=24256– This video is part of a general GSA website devoted to BIM at http://www.gsa.gov/bim. It includes all kinds of publications that you might want to pass along to your public works or other construction staff.

The buildingSMART alliance is the organizational leader of BIM. Its ”focus is to guarantee lowest overall cost, optimum sustainability, energy conservation and environmental stewardship to protect the earth’s ecosystem.” http://www.buildingsmartalliance.org/

Wikipedia, of course, has an entry on BIM at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_Information_Modeling- An introductory article, ”Intelligent Design Through BIM” can be found at http://www.allbusiness.com/technology/software-services-applications-computer/11579683-1.html

© 2011 Norman Jacknis Permalink http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/7124259555/get-the-most-out-of-your-construction-money

Make Room For The Future

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, June 1, 2009.]

It’s not news to anyone that the Obama Administration’s stimulus program amounts to one of the largest public works programs since the Great Depression. During that era, the economist Lord Keynes was quoted as saying that workers should be paid to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up again because the wages the workers received would create consumer demand and so boost the economy. Today’s television pundits often forget that Keynes added that “It is not reasonable, however, that a sensible community should be content to remain dependent on such fortuitous and often wasteful mitigations when once we understand the influences upon which effective demand depends.” 

Whether or not you agree with the Keynes approach to fighting the current recession, it would seem that, other things being equal, it is better to spend the money in ways that build a foundation for future economic growth than to merely jack up consumer demand.

That is perhaps why President Obama calls his program the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. So, as the stimulus funds start flowing to local and state governments around the country, the leaders of those governments should ensure that the money is treated as an investment for the future. If, for example, all we do is re-pave the highways of the 1950s, we will have wasted a tremendous opportunity.

Earlier this year, a paper prepared for the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors – the people in local governments who deal with these issues – recommended a program that would make room for the future. They called it JULIET, for Joint Underground Location of Infrastructure for Electric and Telecommunications. 

The program suggests that local governments, thinking about the future, insist that conduit for these basic utilities be built into any highway/road construction. The report notes that this might add about $10-30,000 per mile in construction costs – a fairly small percentage of typical highway mileage costs. But it would save about 70% of the costs of deploying fiber networks in a community because the largest cost in such projects is not the technology, but opening up the roads and laying down the conduit. With the stimulus construction money, the roads will already be opened up.

The deployment of fiber networks doesn’t just provide high speed Internet services, but also offers an opportunity to build in smart management of infrastructure. That same conduit, which can be used to reduce the cost of getting a high speed fiber network into your community, can also be the backbone for a network of sensors that monitor traffic on the highway and even the condition of the highways and bridges – so your public works personnel will be notified when damage is still minor and less expensive than the big emergency projects that take you and your budget by surprise. 

That same conduit can also be the backbone for smart energy management and smart grids, which can enable the government and its residents to reduce their energy costs and greenhouse gases.Around the world, local government leaders have recognized that the future will involve broadband and the smart management of the public infrastructure. Both of these should be incorporated in the plans for any stimulus spending.

Sooner or later, the recession will be over. Then will come the reviews of each government’s performance. Will you want it said that your government spent the stimulus money just to revive the consumer sector of the economy or that you also took advantage of the opportunity to gain the additional benefit of laying the foundation for the future viability of your community? 

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

CommonsTheGame.com

This is sort of a follow up to the FixMyStreet post.

Last week, I attended the 8th Annual Games For Change conference.  One of the more interesting examples was developed by students at NYU ITP, the program that Clay Shirky is part of.  It’s initial trial was in Lower Manhattan.

Using smart phones, it makes a social game of 311 and encourage people to solve problems on their own.  It’s a real world (or perhaps blended virtual/physical world) game, rather than the many games that are exclusively virtual.  

People (individually or in teams) submit “tasks”, which could a problem or a suggestion or a question. For example: what do you give tourists at South Street Seaport (battery chargers!)?  how could you make the waterfront more fun?  

People then vote on the ideas or on problems. There is constant feedback, so you’re notified when someone votes on your idea/task  

The key lessons they learned were that people prefer guided vs. open ended interactions, simplicity is key, and people found it all more fun when they work as teams.

You “win” based on points.  So the person with the most points is Mayor of downtown Manhattan for the day.  However, to maintain a more positive, civil atmosphere, there is an emphasis on and rewards (points) for suggestions, rather than merely submitting problems.

Their next step is to work with the city government to integrate the game into the real 311 system.  

It will be interesting to see where they take this or if others pick up on the idea.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Public Reviews Of Public Services

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, March 30, 2009.]

Measuring the performance of government agencies has been a hot topic among government managers over the last several years. Frequently, these performance measurement projects end up using lots of resources, with dozens of different measures and the computer systems necessary to manage all that data. But the odd result is that, with all these measures, what matters to the people who are served by your government is often overlooked.

The same thing was true in medical care, another service area of great personal importance to people. Then the Zagat folks entered the picture. Much like their website for reviews of restaurants and the like, in conjunction with the WellPoint health insurance company, they started a website where patients can rate their physicians.  [See, for example, http://www.bcbsil.com/company_info/newsroom/news/zagat_health_survey.html

Of course, Zagat isn’t the only such service. Amazon.com has been known for, among other things, reader reviews of books.

None of these Internet-based rating services – and there are many – is without criticism. The worry in the Amazon reviews is that they can be gamed for commercial purposes. With Zagat’s application of their review process to physicians, there have been criticisms about the lack of expertise of the reviewers. But both of these services can provide a perspective that the physicians or restaurants or authors or any other service provider couldn’t get in any other way.

Similarly, if the public gets a chance to rate public services, you will be able to learn things about those services that none of the internally generated performance measurement systems alone will give you. 

Where could you use this in government? Well, think about the services you offer, particular those that are used by enough people so that ratings might mean something.

How about ratings of:

  • each of your parks
  • each of the major roads in your area
  • each bus route or other transit service
  • each health clinic
  • each school
  • each library or library branch
  • special events that you run, whether holiday events or educational events

Just like restaurant reviews, which have many dimensions – quality of food, ambience, service, etc. – so too you could have many dimensions in any reviews of public services. Roads, for example, can be measured by the smoothness of the surface (the opposite of potholes), congestion, perceived safety, and clarity of signs.

You don’t even need to think all that hard about these dimensions because you can also let the public suggest the dimensions they want to rate services on.

And, based on the experience of the other reviewing services, there shouldn’t be too much concern about criticism boiling over. While there are the bad, sometimes really awful, reviews, in most cases people have good things to say. And their suggestions for improvements are well meaning. 

Of course, if there is some public service that you offer which garners extremely negative responses from a majority of reviewers, then you probably have a real problem – and it’s better to know about it early, before it becomes an election year issue.

Bottom line: unlike elaborate performance measurement systems, this is just a fairly simple website that can engage your residents and provide you with valuable information, inexpensively.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Fix My Street

[This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders on February 12, 2009.  I’m surprised more of them have not used either FixMyStreet or its American variation, SeeClickFix.]

With digital cameras and cameras within mobile phones, your citizens can be your eyes and ears. 

Don’t wait for a problem – or worse, a pattern of problems – to get out of hand. Encourage people to help you identify those problems fast. They can take a picture or even a video, identify the location and send it to you.

In tough financial times, this approach helps in a number of ways. It opens up the possibility of reducing staff who just go around looking for problems, since citizens would be volunteering to do work that you used to pay for. Some of these positions can be shifted to fixing the problems.  All in all, this should allow for a faster resolution of problems and more satisfied citizens.

It is, of course, conceivable that you might be overwhelmed by complaints. To handle this situation, you can explain on the site how you prioritize problems so people know what to expect. You might indicate that high risk problems or those in busy areas or those that are costly come first. 

You could even ask the person submitting the report to rate the problem against your criteria and then let other visitors to the site agree or disagree. That way, to some extent, you let public opinion help you determine the order in which problems are to be addressed. You could even copy some of the websites that encourage people to rank products, except in this case, they would be encouraged to rank problems. 

FixMyStreet – at http://www.fixmystreet.com – was developed by a British non-profit, mySociety.org, so that citizens can ”report, view, or discuss local problems (like graffiti, fly tipping, broken paving slabs, or street lighting).” 

In the UK, a citizen files a report and the non-profit group sends it in to the local government. But you don’t need a middle-man; you could set up such a website yourself. And the FixMyStreet software is free (open-source) software, so setting it up is not expensive. 

Finally, while FixMyStreet focuses on these simple physical problems on a street, you don’t have to limit yourself to those kinds of problems, of course. Any kind of problem or incident could be reported.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Broadband Networks & NYC Subways

Broadband Networks & NYC Subways

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, October 12, 2009.]

Many governments around the world are struggling to find the best method to get broadband networks created within their areas.  (Maybe it is the USA which is especially struggling.)

I thought about some historical precedents for major local infrastructure projects.  While the US Interstate Highway system is often cited as such a precedent, it falls short of representing the current debate because no one proposed in the 1950s that we should “let the private sector do it.”

But the huge New York City rail transit system is perhaps a better historical analogy.  It is important to note that the way the current system operates – as a single government owned and operated system – is not how it started or operated for many of its early years.

It seems that New York City government used every possible method including:

  • Let private companies own, build and run mass transit lines.  (Then take them over when they fail – due to underlying economic properties of such infrastructure which makes them more like public goods than private goods that can sustain a profit.)
  • Own the rights to the transit line yourself, but let a private company build and operate it.
  • Build the transit line yourself, but let a private company operate it.
  • Build the transit line and also run it.
  • Fake it – act as if a new transit line is going to be run and built by a private company, but do it yourself when no private company does so.

One other aspect of this history is of interest, which is the use of the “dual contracts.”  Those allowed more than one rail operator to use the same tracks and is analogous to the open network approach in today’s broadband world – whether the fiber backbone of broadband networks should be open to all users.

This opportunistic strategy perhaps made it easier and quicker for New York City to bring its great transit system to life.  Of course, eventually, this same lack of coherence created future problems and inefficiencies.  And by the time the great expansion of transit lines was finished, the government ended up owning and operating the whole system and sporadically filling some of the remaining unserved areas. 

Was the trade-off of a fast growth opportunistic strategy against longer term problems worth it?  Given the success and the role that the subways have played in New York City’s development, the answer is likely yes.

I’ve combined excerpts from a couple different sources (especially the now ubiquitous Wikipedia) to highlight some aspects of that system’s history. …

———————–

History of the New York City Subway

The beginnings of the Subway came from various excursion railroads to Coney Island and elevated railroads in Manhattan and Brooklyn. At that time, New York County (Manhattan Island and part of the Bronx), Kings County (including the Cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburg) and Queens County were separate political entities.

In New York, competing steam-powered elevated railroads were built over major avenues. The first elevated line was constructed in 1867-70 by Charles Harvey and his West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway company along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue (although cable cars were the initial mode of transportation on that railway). Later more lines were built on Second, Third and Sixth Avenues. None of these structures remain today, but these lines later shared trackage with subway trains as part of the IRT system.

In Kings County [Brooklyn], elevated railroads were also built by several companies. These also later shared trackage with subway trains, and even operated into the subway, as part of the BRT and BMT. These lines were linked to Manhattan by various ferries and later the tracks along the Brooklyn Bridge (which originally had their own line, and were later integrated into the BRT/BMT).  Also in Kings County, six steam excursion railroads were built to various beaches in the southern part of the county; all but one eventually fell under BMT control.

In 1898, New York, Kings and Richmond Counties, and parts of Queens and Westchester Counties and their constituent cities, towns, villages and hamlets were consolidated into the City of Greater New York. During this era the expanded City of New York resolved that it wanted the core of future rapid transit to be underground subways, but realized that no private company was willing to put up the enormous capital required to build beneath the streets.

The City decided to issue rapid transit bonds outside of its regular bonded debt limit and build the subways itself, and contracted with the IRT (which by that time ran the elevated lines in Manhattan) to equip and operate the subways, sharing the profits with the City and guaranteeing a fixed five-cent fare.

The Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway opened in 1904. The city contracted construction of the line to the IRT Company, ownership was always held by the city. The IRT built, equipped, and operated the line under a lease from the city. The IRT also leased the Manhattan Railway elevated lines in Manhattan and the Bronx for 999 years!

In Brooklyn, the various elevated railroads and many of the surface steam railroads, as well as most of the trolley lines, were consolidated under the BRT. Some improvements were made to these lines at company expense during this era.  Then the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT, formerly the Brooklyn Rapid Transit, BRT) was the rapid transit company which built, bought, or assumed control of the Brooklyn elevated lines.

The BRT, which just barely entered Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge, wanted the opportunity to compete with the IRT, and the IRT wanted to extend its Brooklyn line to compete with the BRT. This led to the City’s agreeing to contract for future subways with both the BRT and IRT.  The expansion of rapid transit was greatly facilitated by the signing of the Dual Contracts in 1913. Finished mostly by 1920, some of the new lines had trains operated by both companies.

The majority of the present-day subway system was either built or improved under [four sequential] contracts to the IRT and BRT

The City, bolstered by political claims that the private companies were reaping profits at taxpayer expense, determined that it would build, equip and operate a new system itself, with private investment and without sharing the profits with private entities. This led to the building of the Independent City-Owned Subway (ICOS), sometimes called the Independent Subway System — that was not connected to the IRT or BMT lines. This system consisted of entirely subway construction with only one elevated portion.

As the first line neared completion, New York City offered it for private operation as a formality, knowing that no operator would meet its terms. Thus the city declared that it would operate it itself, formalizing a foregone conclusion. The first line opened without a formal ceremony..

Only two new lines were opened [later], the IRT Dyre Avenue Line (1941) and the IND Rockaway Line (1956). Both of these lines were rehabilitations of existing railroad rights-of-way rather than new construction.

In June 1940, the transportation assets of the former BMT and IRT systems were taken over by the City of New York for operation by the City’s Board of Transportation, which already operated the IND system.  After city takeover of the bankrupt BMT and IRT companies, many of the elevated lines were closed, and a slow “unification” took place, marked notably by establishment of several free transfer points between divisions in 1948 and a few points of through running between IND and BMT lines beginning in 1954.

A combination of factors had this takeover coincide with the end of the major rapid transit building eras in New York City. The City immediately began to eliminate what it considered redundancy in the system, closing several elevated lines.

[But] Because the early subway systems competed with each other, they tended to cover the same areas of the city, leading to much overlapping service. The amount of service has actually decreased since the 1940s as many elevated railways were torn down, and finding funding for underground replacements has proven difficult.

Despite the unification, a distinction between the three systems survives in the service labels: IRT lines (now referred to as A Division) have numbers and BMT/IND (now collectively B Division) lines use letters. There is also a more physical but less obvious difference: Division A cars are narrower than those of Division B by 18 inches (~45cm) and shorter by 9 to 24 feet (~2.7 to 7.3m).  An BMT/IND style train cannot fit into an IRT tunnel (the numbered lines and the 42nd Street Shuttle). An IRT train CAN fit into a BMT/IND tunnel but since it is narrower the distance from car to platform is unsafe. Cars from the IRT division are moved using BMT/IND tracks to Coney Island Overhaul Shops for major maintenance on a regular basis.  Division B equipment could operate on much of Division A if station platforms were trimmed and trackside furniture moved. Being able to do so would increase the capacity of Division A. However, there is virtually no chance of this happening because the portions of Division A that could not accommodate Division B equipment without major physical reconstruction are situated in such a way that it would be impossible to put together coherent through services.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Broadband Networks & NYC Subways

[This was originally published on June 20, 2011 and it was posted on a blog for government leaders, October 12, 2009.]

Many governments around the world are struggling to find the best method to get broadband networks created within their areas.  (Maybe it is the USA which is especially struggling.)

I thought about some historical precedents for major local infrastructure projects.  While the US Interstate Highway system is often cited as such a precedent, it falls short of representing the current debate because no one proposed in the 1950s that we should “let the private sector do it.”

But the huge New York City rail transit system is perhaps a better historical analogy.  It is important to note that the way the current system operates – as a single government owned and operated system – is not how it started or operated for many of its early years.

It seems that New York City government used every possible method including:

  • Let private companies own, build and run mass transit lines.  (Then take them over when they fail – due to underlying economic properties of such infrastructure which makes them more like public goods than private goods that can sustain a profit.)
  • Own the rights to the transit line yourself, but let a private company build and operate it.
  • Build the transit line yourself, but let a private company operate it.
  • Build the transit line and also run it.
  • Fake it – act as if a new transit line is going to be run and built by a private company, but do it yourself when no private company does so.

One other aspect of this history is of interest, which is the use of the “dual contracts.”  Those allowed more than one rail operator to use the same tracks and is analogous to the open network approach in today’s broadband world – whether the fiber backbone of broadband networks should be open to all users.

This opportunistic strategy perhaps made it easier and quicker for New York City to bring its great transit system to life.  Of course, eventually, this same lack of coherence created future problems and inefficiencies.  And by the time the great expansion of transit lines was finished, the government ended up owning and operating the whole system and sporadically filling some of the remaining unserved areas.

Was the trade-off of a fast growth opportunistic strategy against longer term problems worth it?  Given the success and the role that the subways have played in New York City’s development, the answer is likely yes.

I’ve combined excerpts from a couple different sources (especially the now ubiquitous Wikipedia) to highlight some aspects of that system’s history. …

———————–

History of the New York City Subway

The beginnings of the Subway came from various excursion railroads to Coney Island and elevated railroads in Manhattan and Brooklyn. At that time, New York County (Manhattan Island and part of the Bronx), Kings County (including the Cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburg) and Queens County were separate political entities.

In New York, competing steam-powered elevated railroads were built over major avenues. The first elevated line was constructed in 1867-70 by Charles Harvey and his West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway company along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue (although cable cars were the initial mode of transportation on that railway). Later more lines were built on Second, Third and Sixth Avenues. None of these structures remain today, but these lines later shared trackage with subway trains as part of the IRT system.

In Kings County [Brooklyn], elevated railroads were also built by several companies. These also later shared trackage with subway trains, and even operated into the subway, as part of the BRT and BMT. These lines were linked to Manhattan by various ferries and later the tracks along the Brooklyn Bridge (which originally had their own line, and were later integrated into the BRT/BMT).  Also in Kings County, six steam excursion railroads were built to various beaches in the southern part of the county; all but one eventually fell under BMT control.

In 1898, New York, Kings and Richmond Counties, and parts of Queens and Westchester Counties and their constituent cities, towns, villages and hamlets were consolidated into the City of Greater New York. During this era the expanded City of New York resolved that it wanted the core of future rapid transit to be underground subways, but realized that no private company was willing to put up the enormous capital required to build beneath the streets.

The City decided to issue rapid transit bonds outside of its regular bonded debt limit and build the subways itself, and contracted with the IRT (which by that time ran the elevated lines in Manhattan) to equip and operate the subways, sharing the profits with the City and guaranteeing a fixed five-cent fare.

The Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway opened in 1904. The city contracted construction of the line to the IRT Company, ownership was always held by the city. The IRT built, equipped, and operated the line under a lease from the city. The IRT also leased the Manhattan Railway elevated lines in Manhattan and the Bronx for 999 years!

In Brooklyn, the various elevated railroads and many of the surface steam railroads, as well as most of the trolley lines, were consolidated under the BRT. Some improvements were made to these lines at company expense during this era.  Then the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT, formerly the Brooklyn Rapid Transit, BRT) was the rapid transit company which built, bought, or assumed control of the Brooklyn elevated lines.

The BRT, which just barely entered Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge, wanted the opportunity to compete with the IRT, and the IRT wanted to extend its Brooklyn line to compete with the BRT. This led to the City’s agreeing to contract for future subways with both the BRT and IRT.  The expansion of rapid transit was greatly facilitated by the signing of the Dual Contracts in 1913. Finished mostly by 1920, some of the new lines had trains operated by both companies.

The majority of the present-day subway system was either built or improved under [four sequential] contracts to the IRT and BRT

The City, bolstered by political claims that the private companies were reaping profits at taxpayer expense, determined that it would build, equip and operate a new system itself, with private investment and without sharing the profits with private entities. This led to the building of the Independent City-Owned Subway (ICOS), sometimes called the Independent Subway System — that was not connected to the IRT or BMT lines. This system consisted of entirely subway construction with only one elevated portion.

As the first line neared completion, New York City offered it for private operation as a formality, knowing that no operator would meet its terms. Thus the city declared that it would operate it itself, formalizing a foregone conclusion. The first line opened without a formal ceremony..

Only two new lines were opened [later], the IRT Dyre Avenue Line (1941) and the IND Rockaway Line (1956). Both of these lines were rehabilitations of existing railroad rights-of-way rather than new construction.

In June 1940, the transportation assets of the former BMT and IRT systems were taken over by the City of New York for operation by the City’s Board of Transportation, which already operated the IND system.  After city takeover of the bankrupt BMT and IRT companies, many of the elevated lines were closed, and a slow “unification” took place, marked notably by establishment of several free transfer points between divisions in 1948 and a few points of through running between IND and BMT lines beginning in 1954.

A combination of factors had this takeover coincide with the end of the major rapid transit building eras in New York City. The City immediately began to eliminate what it considered redundancy in the system, closing several elevated lines.

[But] Because the early subway systems competed with each other, they tended to cover the same areas of the city, leading to much overlapping service. The amount of service has actually decreased since the 1940s as many elevated railways were torn down, and finding funding for underground replacements has proven difficult.

Despite the unification, a distinction between the three systems survives in the service labels: IRT lines (now referred to as A Division) have numbers and BMT/IND (now collectively B Division) lines use letters. There is also a more physical but less obvious difference: Division A cars are narrower than those of Division B by 18 inches (~45cm) and shorter by 9 to 24 feet (~2.7 to 7.3m).  An BMT/IND style train cannot fit into an IRT tunnel (the numbered lines and the 42nd Street Shuttle). An IRT train CAN fit into a BMT/IND tunnel but since it is narrower the distance from car to platform is unsafe. Cars from the IRT division are moved using BMT/IND tracks to Coney Island Overhaul Shops for major maintenance on a regular basis.  Division B equipment could operate on much of Division A if station platforms were trimmed and trackside furniture moved. Being able to do so would increase the capacity of Division A. However, there is virtually no chance of this happening because the portions of Division A that could not accommodate Division B equipment without major physical reconstruction are situated in such a way that it would be impossible to put together coherent through services.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis