Improving City Hall in San Jose

by Bruce Gil

Improving City Hall in San Jose

by Bruce Gil
Photo courtesy of Ben Heath

Accountability, digital transformation, and OKRs in local government.


Bruce Gil
Published on 02.17.2020

“Why shouldn’t a resident be able to pull a permit online and pay with a credit card while sitting in their pajamas at 3 a.m. on a Saturday?” asked Data Analyst Erica Garaffo in a post on Medium. With this question, which has been asked by anyone who’s had a less than seamless experience with their local permitting office, she called for a change in the way business is done in city halls across the United States—less bureaucratic, more modern, and, most importantly, resident-focused.

She challenged governments to meet their residents where they are: “on a computer or mobile device.”

As process transformation lead for the City of San Jose’s Office of Civic Innovation & Digital Strategy (the innovation team), Garaffo has worked the past few years to bring about this technological revolution in government.

The innovation team was created in 2016 to fulfill the SmartCity Vision, an initiative to make San Jose the most innovative city in America. The plan’s goal is to leverage technology to make the city safe, inclusive, sustainable, and user-friendly.

One of their first priorities was the transformation of the developmental services process, including an upgrade to the city’s permitting software.

Photo Courtesy of Ben HeathPhoto Courtesy of Ben Heath
Photo Courtesy of Ben HeathPhoto Courtesy of Ben Heath

Silicon Valley Wisdom

Late last year, What Matters talked to Garaffo and San Jose Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness about how they used Silicon Valley wisdom to improve how they did government work and, ultimately the lives of city residents.

Harkness, who for the past two decades, has worked in San Jose in both the private and public sectors called the developmental services process, “integral to the fabric of Silicon Valley.”

Anytime anything gets built in the city, whether it’s the addition of a water heater to a home or the expansion of Google’s headquarters, it needs to go through this process to ensure safety and make sure the project meets community standards. This process affects all aspects of a city where its residents work, live, eat, and shop.

However, the process can be slow and complicated. And depending on the project, any delay could be costly. A major mixed-use (residential and retail) development project in the city’s Japantown didn’t break ground until early 2019, 15 years after starting the process. The project had to go through several developers and even went bankrupt at one point. Other factors contributed to the delay, but the city’s complicated permitting and entitlement process didn’t help.

But it wasn’t just big development projects that were affected. For the majority of residents, it meant being able to get permits for smaller projects like water heaters online easily and whenever they needed them. The city aimed to make the process simpler, more efficient, and user-friendly for all. Unfortunately, two years into the transformation, there was very little progress made. They had no working software upgrade. And the different government departments involved started to disengage.

Harkness and Garaffo attributed the lack of progress on a general organization-wide lack of transparency and accountability. The consultation firm Gartner diagnosed them with a case of “watermelon reporting” on the surface. Everyone says a project is moving forward fine (green), but the reality beneath the surface revealed serious issues (red).

Despite this, Harkness was committed to keep working things out with the current team. He was inspired by something he heard from a Dominican monk, “When somebody joins the Dominican monastery, you’re going to know them until you’re dead or they’re dead.”

Photo Courtesy of Ben HeathPhoto Courtesy of Ben Heath

“The city’s not quite at that level, but we’re fairly close,” said Harkness. “Unlike other organizations which might be willing to lay off 10 or 20 percent of their people, we’re not going to do that.”

The leadership commitment made it vital to ensure that whatever Harkness and Garaffo tried next had to improve their team’s internal workings too.

In 2019 after reading John Doerr’s “Measure What Matters”, they tried OKRs—they were in Silicon Valley after all.

“Bringing the team along and empowering them was as critical a component as revisions in the technology and the process,” said Harkness.

In addition to breaking down their ambitious plan into doable steps, and establishing clear and public accountability for each step, OKRs helped them avoid “watermelon reporting.” OKRs paved the way for a culture of open, candid, and direct conversations about the progress they were making. They learned to see failure as not something they should hide, but as a signal to ask for help or additional resources.

Writing OKRs Together

Harkness and Garaffo kicked off the process by writing the first OKRs to guide and propel this team revamp. Together they discussed with the five partners involved in developmental services; Planning, Building, Public Works, Fire, and IT; and worked on creating one holistic set of OKRs instead of separate objectives for each department.

In the past, the mayor would typically receive a memo with certain Objectives and Measures, the city manager’s office would get a different set of measures, and each separate department their own set. By the time individual workers got their objectives, they weren’t connected at all. And no one was responsible for making sure all these efforts were working coherently together.

“For the first time ever, we had a common lens that we were holding all of the departments accountable to,” said Harkness. “And that revolutionized the way we were able to govern and revolutionized the way we were able to allocate resources.”

As the team became increasingly aligned and focused, so did their reporting processes. They now share their goals and progress from the frontline all the way to the mayor’s office with practically a single slide.

Harkness and Garaffo, with input from the different departments involved, settled on four objectives for each quarter. Half were external Objectives that aimed at creating a simple, self-serve digital experience and consistent, clear, and effective applications as measured by how many customers could go through the process quickly and on the first try. The other Objectives were focused on improving internal tools and team workflows.

The impact was almost instantaneous. OKRs became a natural bridge between their ambitious multi-year roadmap and the two-week-long scrum sprints they use for day-to-day work.

How Progress Is Made

Garaffo said the simplicity of OKRs also changed the nature of their committee meetings. “There was less finger-pointing and more of a focus on discussing what was actually important,” she said. OKRs also made it easy to communicate to elected officials how much progress was being made and what everyone was going to work on next.

“We launched our software on time, actually a week early,” said Garaffo. “We went live with very few issues, which in our city is a major success.”

OKRs even shifted Harkness’s own thoughts on leadership.

“It made me realize that I asked too much of too many people. I think that it’s a consequence of my ambition and my excitement, but that doesn’t excuse it,” said Harkness. “My job as a leader is to ask my team and people for fewer things. But ensure they are the most important things.”

By committing to fewer but higher quality objectives, they achieved more in less than one year than they did the previous two. And now, getting a permit in PJs is a reality in the city of San Jose. This year they are rolling out an even simpler online portal. They’ve also outlined a strategy to implement the SmartCity Vision with an updated roadmap of over 100 projects. With each success, they take one step closer to making San Jose the most innovative city in America.

Bruce Gil (@brucgl) is a Las Vegas-based writer and journalist who writes about  leadership, team management, and international entrepreneurship. 

Photo Courtesy of Ben HeathPhoto Courtesy of Ben Heath

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