Monica Liu, a student at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School and recipient of an Ash Center Summer Fellowship in Innovation, spent last summer in the Los Angeles Mayor's Office of Budget and Innovation. In this reflection on her experience there, she describes the multifaceted approach of the #techLA citizen engagement initiative.
Growing up in Los Angeles, I gave little thought to the impact of government services in my life and in the lives of 9.8 million other residents across the nation’s largest county and second-largest city. My interest in public service led me through numerous consulting engagements with state and federal agencies, and national nonprofits and philanthropies — but never back home.
This summer, with generous fellowship support from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School, I finally had a chance to return to my hometown to work at the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Budget and Innovation. Throughout my placement, I worked for LA Chief Data Officer Abhi Nemani on #techLA, a recent mayoral initiative aimed at mobilizing Los Angeles residents around technology-informed civic problem-solving.
The #techLA Vision
#techLA operates on the simple conviction that Angelenos — by virtue of their investments in the community and diversity of perspectives — can be powerful solution architects for the city’s most pressing challenges. For the city’s first #techLA "summer of innovation," the mayor’s office organized three community hackathons to leverage open data resources in designing solutions around critical issues with which Angelenos grapple daily: drought management, new immigrant integration, and transportation.
The #techLA team’s primary goal is to promote inclusive, meaningful community engagement with the initiative. Public messaging is focused on socializing the concept of “citizen hackers” as individuals who contribute to civic problem-solving, regardless of their specific skill set. Thus, #techLA supports any and all Angelenos concerned about local civic issues and willing to work with their neighbors to craft solutions.
While hackathons typically cater to professionals with technical expertise, #techLA targets a much wider audience, including technologists, data scientists, designers, public servants, and community members. Broadening the participant base to welcome non-technical individuals is critical to facilitating problem-solving environments where technical expertise, user feedback, and resident experiences work in synergy.
The commitment of the mayor’s office to diversity does not just end with encouraging participation from individuals with a variety of professional backgrounds. #techLA also articulates a specific focus on gender equity, ethnic diversity, and youth engagement in all programming decisions and outreach efforts. The city has partnered with local nonprofits and businesses to promote participation from women, minorities, and other groups that are currently underrepresented in both the technology sector and the civic space. These organizations are working with the mayor’s office to ensure that the #techLA community is truly representative of the diversity of perspective, experience, and identity in Los Angeles.
The Long Game of #techLA: Moving from Participation to Engagement
Recognizing that event-based initiatives alone often fail to sustain impact, the mayor’s office seeks to encourage more meaningful engagement through two strategies:
- Facilitate longer-term programming that supports participants from solution concept to execution/adoption.
- Matching city program priorities and needs with #techLA talent and resources.
The first strategy addresses the reality that effective, sustainable solutions cannot be built, tested, optimized, and adopted during a single hackathon event. Just like any commercial enterprise, solutions to civic issues like drought management, immigration, and transportation require substantial investments of time, money, and talent. To ensure that innovative solutions conceptualized during #techLA events actually move through the product pipeline, the mayor’s office is partnering with the LA-based Civic Innovation Lab to launch Accelerate: LA, an incubator program specifically designed to help civic startup founders launch their solutions in the city. Winners of the summer #techLA hackathons earn a spot in the inaugural cohort this fall and will have access to a range of mentors, users, and potential funders to support implementation of their product ideas.
The second strategy aims to leverage the technical talent of the city’s residents to support specific city programs and community initiatives. The Office of Data at the mayor’s office works with other City Hall departments to identify projects that would benefit from a technology-based solution; provides advisory support to help departments identify outstanding needs and challenges; and, where appropriate, engages the #techLA community in addressing those challenges.
Hacking Solutions for the LA Promise Zone
In service of this second strategy, I engaged in a project to support mayor’s office staff in designing a comprehensive, technology-forward evaluation framework for tracking performance of the Los Angeles Promise Zone (LAPZ). The LAPZ is a ten-year federal designation that supports educational and economic opportunities for approximately 165,000 residents of low-income communities. While the designation itself does not carry funding, the LAPZ is leveraging $36 million in federal place-based grants — as well as multiple nonprofit, government, and private partnerships — to provide cradle-to-career support for residents of the Zone.
Evaluation, reporting, and continuous improvement for such a complex initiative was a key challenge for the LAPZ team. During my summer placement, I focused on identifying relevant datasets from various city departments that might be helpful in gauging LAPZ performance and proposing a data collection, management, and presentation process. At the end of the project, I had reviewed various departments’ responses to a call for information about relevant datasets, implemented a taxonomy that organized metrics by area of impact (e.g., education, social capital), and designed a scorecard that would easily communicate LAPZ performance to stakeholders.
This process surfaced a multitude of challenges that reminded me of the tremendous potential of engaging #techLA participants in problem-solving:
- The unique boundaries of the Promise Zone present roadblocks for departments that do not currently collect data at that level of granularity. While much of the data is publicly available through the city’s open data platform, technical talent is required to disaggregate data to the neighborhood level. The need for such efforts is by no means limited to the Promise Zone — other city programs that work in neighborhoods would benefit greatly from measuring their performance within specific geographies.
- The integrative scorecard, which is a critical storytelling device for providing a performance snapshot to the public, requires the integration of city-housed Promise Zone data with supplementary data from national sources. Citizen hackers could be key resources in removing data silos and increasing transparency around program performance.
My summer in Los Angeles affirmed for me that local citizens — with or without technical skills — have a critical role to play in technology-enabled civic problem-solving. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to “serve where I live,” and I look forward to doing so throughout my career.