The White House Sends a “Tech Team” to Detroit

The two-day trip is part of a push to help “build a 21st century Detroit.”

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In a bit of interesting news coming out of Washington today, it seems that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has assembled what it is calling the “Detroit Tech Team,” and sent it on a quick trip to see if it can help out the bankrupt Motor City. From the blog:

Last night, a team of top municipal-government technology officials from across the nation led by the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) landed in Detroit to begin two days of work as a partner to support Detroit’s vision for economic revitalization.

The officials participating in this “Tech Team” are:
Nigel Jacob, Co-founder of the Office of New Urban Mechanics in the City of Boston, MA
John Tolva, former Chief Technology Officer of the City of Chicago, IL
Beth Niblock, Chief Information Officer of City of Louisville, KY
Allen Square Jr., Chief Information Officer of the City of New Orleans, LA
Gail Roper, Chief Information and Community Relations Officer for the City of Raleigh, NC

These five individuals have led innovative efforts in Boston, Chicago, Louisville, New Orleans, and Raleigh that have created significant costs-savings for the local government and enabled the development of customer-facing tools that make government services easier to access. 

For more information on the Tech Team, view a fact sheet here.

Over the next two days, we will be facilitating meetings in Detroit with the Tech Team and city officials and local private-sector, non-profit, and civic innovators to collaborate and identify opportunities to leverage technology to help contribute to economic growth and dramatically improve services for city residents in high-impact sectors—in ways that are tailored to the needs of people in Detroit.  

Building on work underway in Detroit, together, the Tech Team and the City will brainstorm solutions in several broad issue areas, including:

Enabling Online Permitting: Identify ways for the city to offer the ability for local residents to apply and pay for business, safety, building, and other permits online;
Evaluating IT Infrastructure:  Analyze existing IT infrastructure and software to identify opportunities for consolidation and cost savings in areas including software applications, data centers, and servers;
Streamlining Payroll Systems: Review city payroll processes and identify opportunities to digitize manual processes and reduce costs and potential for errors;
Opening Government Data: Identify opportunities to leverage new software to enable open government data to fuel entrepreneurs and innovation while ensuring privacy and security; and
Creating a 311 System:  Recommend best practices for implementing a 311 system and decreasing non-emergency related service requests to emergency lines such as 911.

Based on the discussions that take place over two days of brainstorming, the Tech Team – in collaboration with the City of Detroit – will develop a set of actionable recommendations to improve city services and unleash the power of technology to help build a 21st century Detroit.  

In conjunction with this effort, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Rock Ventures have made a commitment to provide $500,000 to help implement the Tech Team’s recommendations by bringing in innovation fellows, making needed technology upgrades, and supporting local tech-training and mentoring.  A commitment from the Kresge Foundation is supporting the Tech Team’s trip to Detroit this week.

Going forward, OSTP, the Tech Team, and the City of Detroit will continue to collaborate on efforts to build a 21st century Detroit as part of the Administration’s long term commitment to partnering with local leaders to support economic revitalization. 

The team will be on-site for only two days, though the White House passes along word that its members met today with both Mayor Dave Bing and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

Three immediate takeaways come to mind. First, the delegation seems focused on helping Detroit fill some basic gaps in city services, particularly where, like online permitting, it might reduce friction that slows much-needed economic growth. (Tweeted Sarah Cox, founding editor of Curbed Detroit, “Building permits you can pay online? What is this future world they envision?”)

Second, President Obama’s early embrace of technology’s potential came with, among some observers, the hope that making government more digital might help break down some of the silos that limit the flow of ideas and innovation in government — whether those silos are government agencies or, as in this case, different levels of government — by moving them from insular bodies to outward-facing ones designed for sharing and collaboration. Team Detroit seems like a step toward that goal.

Third, it’s difficult not to notice that the Detroit Tech Team is staffed from top to bottom with people steeped in the Code for America universe. Boston’s Nigel Jacob and New Orleans’ Allan Square, for example, were both interviewed for this Forefront story on Code for America’s evolution. And that makes one recall that the one-time and presumably future executive director of Code for America, Jennifer Pahlka, is now the Deputy CTO of the United States, housed within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. (Pahlka was also interviewed for the Forefront piece; you should read that piece.)

The notion that different units of government can usefully share experience and expertise, a Code for America central tenet, is getting here some high-level validation.

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Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.

Tags: detroitshared citycivic techcode for america

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