June 12, 2018 - From the June, 2018 issue

Governor Martin O'Malley on Smart Cities & Proactive 21st Century Government

Thanks to unprecedented technological innovation, global cities are becoming “smarter” than ever—but local government is at risk of being left behind. At PublicSpend Forum’s 2018 Technology Procurement Symposium, former presidential candidate and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley highlighted smart governance and procurement to achieve a more agile public sector, one that uses new technologies to devise creative solutions while minimizing risk. In his address, he points to Pittsburgh, New York, and Los Angeles as cities that have successfully adopted this “new way of government.” The symposium, in collaboration with the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office, launched the ongoing Public Procurement Technology and Innovation Labs seeking to connect government with tech to improve citizens’ lives.

Martin O'Malley

I have seen, all across our country, a new way of leadership and governing emerging for the information age, and Los Angeles is right in the middle of it. —Fmr. Governor Martin O'Malley

Governor Martin O'Malley: I want to share some observations from my time in government and from the perch I’ve had for the last couple years as chair of the MetroLab Network, which is a consortium of 40 leading cities and their university partners who are all about sharing information that leads to faster iterations and more effective deployment of innovation in governments.

We’re seeing the rise of smart cities. What do we mean by smart cities? Smart cities work every day to make their people better educated, more highly skilled, and more mobile. Smart cities are more secure and more sustainable. Smart cities work to create more inclusive economies and more inclusive societies. That’s what it means to be a smart city.

This is a global phenomenon. For the first time in recorded human history, in 2012, we crossed a big threshold: A majority of human beings now live in cities. The drive for climate action and the rise of smart cities are joined in one urgent thrust of human development.

A big part of what it’s going to take to be a smart city and meet the challenges ahead is smarter government. E.J. Dionne, Jr. recently wrote in the Washington Post, remarking on the rise of the alt-right and fascism in corners of democracies around our world, that the biggest challenge facing Western democracy is democracy itself. How can we make it work?

All of us in government are serving citizens whose expectations from new innovative companies are high in terms of what they believe government should be able to do. If my bank can tell me right away how much is in my account from a remote application, why can’t government tell me how my money is spent? If my app can show me that the Uber car is going around the block, how come my city government can’t do the same thing? Well, increasingly, they can.

Let me share with you a couple of observations about this time change. It can be confusing; it’s as if there are two songs playing at the same time on the dial. But the new song emerging is powerful and important. I have seen, all across our country, a new way of leadership and governing emerging for the information age, and Los Angeles is right in the middle of it.

I’ve also seen the pendulum starting to swing away from the days when leaders were considered innovative because they specialized; now, leaders are called innovative when they pull the pieces together to make a more impactful whole. Once you put people in separate silos, it’s hard to make decisions that serve the entire enterprise. Increasingly, what I see happening across the country is that people are bringing things back together.

The new way of government is distinguished from the old way, which was top-down, siloed, command and control: “Do it because I told you to.” It is collaborative. It is entrepreneurial. It asks the question, “What works?” It is not burdened by the tyranny of “the way we’ve always done it.” Instead, it is enlightened by the ability to see what else is going on around us—what other practitioners are doing.

All of this holds tremendous promise. But how do we open up government in order to get the best solutions? After all, $10 trillion is spent on procurement globally. We have the ability. We’ve never had better tools. What we need is the leadership that actually gets it done.

That leads me to my second point: the shifting nature of leadership. I’ve heard it said that in Silicon Valley, failure is a badge of honor. But for people in government, failure is your ticket to the door. Nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM unless IBM failed. For good reason, we all feel a responsibility to de-risk, especially when it comes to new things. Leadership in this area is about openness and transparency.

I’ve been asked the question, “Does this require a two-step process?” And yes, I think it’s a two-step process; in fact, I think we might need more steps than that. That runs contrary to the old way of leadership that said, “Hold your information tight; don’t talk to others or you’ll get in trouble.”

Even the word “collaboration” has changed in the last 10 years. “Collaboration” used to be something bad you did with Nazis. Now, you can’t do anything effectively unless you “collaborate.” Collaboration is the new computation. So how do we bring collaboration to the procurement process and make it more agile, while still safeguarding against the risk of failure and also the accusation of collusion? (Collusion is different than collaboration!)


The answer is the sort of ethic that you see in innovative new mayors, like Mayor Garcetti and many other effective men and women leading their own cities across the country. It’s a commitment to openness and transparency.

If you meet with people ahead of time to write the problem statement, put the minutes online. Be open about it. Be transparent. Take one or two or even three steps to get it right, and bring people to the table—but not to tell them, from the top of that command-and-control hierarchy, “Do it because I said to.” Bring people together with openness and transparency in the center of the collaborative circle. Ask people, “What do you think is the best way to do this? Do you understand the problem as we framed it? Feel free to bring solutions that we haven’t thought of.” Look around the globe for those innovations, and you’ll find them—because the best governing going on in the free world today is emanating up and out from cities.

Know what you’re buying. Move from silos to enterprise. Understand what your strategic goals are. Move from issuing requirements to issuing problem statements. See where it has worked somewhere before. That’s the best way to de-risk things. That’s what every good mayor asks when somebody brings a shiny new innovation to them: “Show me where this has worked before.”

I once told a meeting of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, “Every elected official wants to be the best at doing something second.” They were aghast; they wanted to burn me as a heretic. How dare I offend the gods of innovation? Fail! Fail fast! Fail often! So I explained, “The reason we want to be the best at doing something second is because it de-risks it.” If you have a procurement that’s actually great, where people have put the collaborative work in to make it work and have gotten a better result, wouldn’t you like to know about that?

That’s what Public Spend Forum is about. It’s about creating a crowd-sourced, common platform for sharing the best global innovations and the best market intelligence, so that you can do your job better and deliver better results for your cities.

Let’s take a couple of examples. Pittsburgh recently embarked on a very smart procurement when they issued a Request for Information to upgrade more than 40,000 streetlights. Now, in the old days of specialization, that RFI would have been for streetlights and streetlights only. But in an enterprise-wide approach, they not only focused on lighting, but also encouraged innovation by inviting vendors to submit bids that incorporated technology to aid other pressing issues throughout the city—like monitoring the flow of traffic and air quality and providing better cell phone service.

In a similar case of incubating innovation, New York City capitalized on an opportunity to modernize its payphone systems by challenging vendors to think about how to move from 20th Century to 21st Century infrastructure. The result? Kiosks that provide free WiFi as well as phone calls, and display ads on the sides.

Mayor Garcetti is also doing really cool things in Los Angeles in cases where recognized enterprise-wide problems that couldn’t be solved by an individual, siloed approach. He’s made these the top priorities citywide for his Operations Innovation Team.

That is the future of government and self-government. It’s not keeping innovation in a silo; it’s incorporating innovation into the collaborative circles that actually ask every day whether what we’re doing is working. It’s about having the confidence to say to people, “It’s okay to ask questions.”

In pedagogy, we talk about learning from one another. People in government and public servants can also learn from one another. The tools are there to know what we have and to do something with it.

Together, we can truly make collaboration the new competition. We can make our government work, and we can continue this ongoing longitudinal experiment called the United States of America.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.