Partnering for Success: How the City of Palo Alto Engages its Tech Community
Every community makes it their business to know their unique qualities. Great communities systematically leverage these qualities to sustain and improve their city or town. At the City of Palo Alto, California, we are fortunate to have many assets that collectively make our community a desirable place to live, work, and visit. While qualities such as our parks and tree-lined streets are characteristics of our physical environment, Palo Alto is notable for a population with the highest percentage of graduate degrees in the state, an insatiable appetite for entrepreneurship, and a propensity towards technology innovation. This short article focuses on some of our efforts as a municipal government to specifically leverage our technology community.
Creating a focus on technology and innovation
While the City of Palo Alto works diligently each year to sustain an environment favorable to technology innovators; in 2013 the City made two important decisions. First, the City Council voted to make technology one of three priorities for the year, and second, they encouraged the creation of an Innovation Council made up of qualified community members. In both instances City Council demonstrated leadership in supporting from the very top the important role that technology and innovation can play in the advancement of a City and in solving its stubborn issues.
In forming the Innovation Council, the City continued a positive trend in engaging community members in a partnership with City leaders. Purely by coincidence, the Innovation Council was first tasked to be an advisory group for the City’s participation in the National Day of Civic Hacking—itself an exemplar for engaging a community’s technology community. CityCamp Palo Alto, our local event, was a huge success, bringing thousands of community members together to engage in a variety of civic innovation activities including brainstorming ideas for apps that solve local problems. The wisdom and guidance of the Innovation Council proved the value of engaging experts in our community.
The valuable role of technology committees
Other technology committees have been fruitful too. Emerging out of a poorly received municipal website redesign in the mid-2000’s, the City Council asked for the appointment of website specialists in the community to be part of an advisory committee for the next round of redesign. The City’s advantage in having experts in a range of Web skills was leveraged. The committee was made up of experts in navigation, content organization, search, and more. The committee was run by City leadership and staff. This committee was one of several reasons why the most recent redesign in 2012 was well-received by the community.
As a demonstration of our commitment to this form of partnership, as Palo Alto begins to explore the possibility of bringing its existing fiber infrastructure (a service that currently only supports businesses, some government services, and schools) to homes in the City, a community committee will be formed. We’re confident a variety of broadband experts will step-up to help to advise our City Council and staff.
Engaging community expands local democracy
In each of these examples, community is engaged and empowered to be part of policy-making and problem solving. An inclusive decision process means a more informed City Council and a richer, better represented democracy. Community members consistently tell us how much they appreciate the opportunity to be part of the process.
In turns out that a new generation of technologists who by day create solutions for profit, will offer up their time to use their skills for social good. A government agency can convene opportunities for technologists to connect, collaborate, and produce real value for their community. In Palo Alto, using hackathons (time-bound software creation events) such as CityCamp; civic meet-ups (brainstorming between community and government leadership and staff); councils; and committees have, for the most part, begun to deliver on this promise.
We’ve also offered our time as experts in government to start-ups that want to build and experiment with prototypes that can be later developed into solutions for the marketplace. This approach resulted in the creation of a well-received budget visualization tool for the City that went on to win a major national award.
It should be made clear from the outset that there is a commitment required from all participants, both public and private. Turns out this is hard, detailed work. So when people volunteer, be sure to come to a common understanding of the effort expected. When community and local government work together, everyone benefits. Palo Alto’s technology committees, for example, have garnered great results. We learned that they need to have appropriate oversight and a continual flow of quality communication between all participants. But with the right people engaged, committed, and motivated, all of us gain the benefits of the outcomes.