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How Palo Alto Brought the Amenities of a Startup to Government

The city’s new Civic Tech Center houses a consolidated IT department and doubles as a community innovation hub.

Situated in a Silicon Valley high-rise, the offices claim half the second floor. There’s a spread of monitors, sometimes two to a desk, that sit beneath the long windows. A whiteboard for code and wire framing spans one wall. Glass doors are etched in motivating maxims: “Think Bigger,” “Inspire,” “Design in Progress.” And for furnishings, the space is outfitted in a shout of purples and lime green upholstery. Think startups. Think Google. Think incubators. That’s the vibe at 250 Hamilton Ave. Yet here’s the hook: This is City Hall.

Welcome to Palo Alto, Calif.’s first Civic Technology Center. In April 2015 the center opened its doors as a hub for municipal innovation initiatives and city IT services. The vision for the center is to become a co-creation space. Here, companies and startups can pitch partnership ideas. Citizens can participate in hackathons and meetups. Staff can find tech support via an Apple-like “Genius Bar.” It’s all the amenities of a startup but packaged for government.

“When people come to see me at City Hall,” said Jonathan Reichental, Palo Alto’s CIO, “they check in electronically at our reception desk and they do a kind of double take. They're like, ‘Wait, is this City Hall?’ Because it doesn't look or behave like it.”

The astonishment serves as an affirmation of sorts. When Reichental, now an award-winning civic innovator, signed on as Palo Alto’s CIO in December 2011, he didn’t enter a brightly lit IT department humming with ingenuity. It was, to put it diplomatically, a “work in progress.”

“I don't really know how it got to the place where it was,” Reichental said. “But over the course of several decades IT was stuck in different areas of the city. It was the 1970s furniture-wise, and everything from the ceiling, to the tiles, to the carpet and filing cabinets just didn't reflect the mission we were on to be a leading digital city.”

Not long after joining the IT department, Reichental began monthly field trips to Silicon Valley tech companies. His team made trips to Apple, Facebook, Google and a slate of others to ideate on potential civic tech. Recalling, Reichental said the trips were spirit lifters, inspiring, semi-revelatory and all of a sudden grievously dismal. For no sooner would they return to their offices, then a pall would settle: Two narratives had collided.

“We'd go into these great tech environments, so open, colorful, with little kitchen areas and lots of lights. Then we would come back to City Hall, to our dark cubicles and 1970s decor. It was horrible,” Reichental said.

Somewhere in those visits, Reichental said he recognized that the momentum to innovate — an endeavor arguably energy-intensive — wouldn’t be sustainable against a dichotomy of competing messages. Leadership could command and encourage, but the effects would be short lived if the walls were yellowing, the desks scuffed and the tools outdated. It’s a hard truth, especially poignant in the cash-strapped world of government, but where things happen often denote how things happen.

At the time, however, all he could do was chart innovation strategies and toil ceaselessly to achieve them. Such efforts weren’t in vain. Reichental led the city to pioneer a number of advancements. In his four years, he has been a catalyst for modernization, digitizing business applications, budgets, permitting, civic engagement, 311 services, emergency management systems and more. These were in addition to a city website revamp, a lineup of hackathons, overhauling a 25-year-old legacy phone system, and establishing Palo Alto’s first open data portal and policy.

What the Civic Technology Center represents, Reichental said, is an attempt to “systematize” the current drive for innovation with a design that pairs efforts with a functional office space and aesthetic. He credits City Manager James Keene for making the wish a reality. A little more than two years ago, Reichental approached Keene with his request. He had no expectations, just a decisive recommendation and a lot of hope.

“I recall going to the city manager and I said, ‘We've got to spend some money and create a working environment that’s consistent with our ambitions,’” Reichental said. “And I remember his answer was funny, he said, ‘Jonathan, of course you do! I was expecting you to do that.’”

The conversation set off a chain reaction of team planning. Reichental spelled up a moderate budget. Staff proposed features and sketched office layouts, and this led to blueprints, which gave way to a flurry of approvals, and eventually, the sheetrock started to fall. Push forward two years and the result is a consolidated IT department that doubles as a community innovation hub. Startups arrive weekly, the community occasionally takes tours and recruitment has boomed. Compared to reports from his colleagues in different cities, Reichental said Palo Alto is seeing a tremendous demand from job seekers with more than 200 applicants for every IT opening — typically, Reichental said his CIO peers in other municipalities see 10 to 12.

“It’s like government as a startup,” he said. “It’s just been a success on multiple levels.”

However, Reichental does not see workplace renovations as universal remedies for civic innovation. Success required a concerted effort before the walls came down. Palo Alto had already cultivated a vibrant community of civic innovators, citizens, companies and nonprofits that were waiting when the doors opened. Likewise, on the inside, staff members were ready to apply entrepreneurial innovation strategies. If leadership and staff weren’t in a place to utilize such a space, Reichental said it won’t work. Similarly, without a community of citizen collaborators, civic tech is just tech.

“I think the No. 1 thing is you have to have a vision,” he said. “What is it that you're trying to do? What's the end game look like?”

What this shakes out to are real-world questions, organizational questions, and questions that influence resources and aims. Reichental suggests that officials ask themselves — media hype aside — if their leadership, department heads and staff are sincerely committed to working like a startup. This means taking risks, experimenting and applying urgency to concepts like iterative design, open workspaces and user-centric development.

“You can't just say, ‘Oh I like the look of it, I'm going to do it.’ Really, you've got to have a compelling story,” said Reichental. “What I was able to say was, I'm here because this is the birthplace and heart of Silicon Valley, and we can't just be another government IT shop. We ought to be doing innovative things and reflect the community we serve.”

This article was originally published on Government Technology.