Garcetti's high-tech, innovation agenda faces old-school hurdles

Fostering innovation at L.A.'s City Hall could prove a tall order for Mayor Eric Garcetti

With painted brick walls, exposed pipes and laptop workstations shaped like pingpong paddles, the workspace known as Hub LA in downtown's trendy Arts District embodies the disruptive, start-up ethos.

That's partly why Mayor Eric Garcetti recently used the venue as a backdrop to announce one of his latest initiatives to move city government "into the modern era" by embracing technology and risk-taking.

Garcetti — who calls himself a "high-tech mayor" — has created an open-data website, launched an app that connects people to city services and appointed the city's first chief innovation technology officer.

Earlier this month, the mayor presented the first Civic Innovation Award to city employees who replaced paper-based maps with a digital app. Three days later, during his visit to Hub LA, he announced a $1-million innovation fund that will finance employee ideas to improve operations.

But transplanting the inventive mind-set of such places as Hub LA to the staid, marble corridors of City Hall could prove a tall order.

Sal Aguilar, who works in the Sanitation Bureau, was given Garcetti's first innovation award this month for what might appear to be a fairly obvious step toward improving efficiency: switching the unit that picks up unwanted furniture from using printed Thomas Guide map books to a GIS-based smartphone routing app.

But even that idea — supported by sanitation drivers — took months to clear bureaucratic hurdles.

"Some of us around them resisted," said bureau director Enrique Zaldivar. To implement the change, Aguilar ultimately needed the help of Bob Stone, who joined the administration last year to break down bureaucratic barriers at City Hall, and Garcetti himself.

City Controller Ron Galperin recalled facing red tape when he wanted to create an open-data website after taking office last year. "I was told 20 reasons why it could not happen and why it would likely not happen and why it would take two years if it did happen," said Galperin, who pushed for the creation of the innovation fund. Galperin's office got his data site up in a few months.

Rick Cole, deputy mayor for budget and innovation, said resistance to change at City Hall intensified amid recession-driven budget cuts that fostered a "culture of status quo."

As thousands of jobs were cut and left unfilled, Cole said, the attitude became, "We can move forward when we get back to what we had before."

The strain of maintaining city functions hurt efforts to keep up with technology advances, Cole said. So City Hall remains stuck with some systems that date back decades.

Jennifer Chatman, a professor at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business who studies workplace cultures, said larger, older organizations are less likely to emphasize innovation. And government agencies in particular tend to stick with what was done in the past, she said.

But Chatman sees promise in Garcetti's initiatives. "There's no reason from a psychological perspective why government employees can't be as creative," she said.

Employees often fear that new technologies could cause job losses. Garcetti says his initiatives are intended to improve how well the city delivers services to residents, not to create ways to cut jobs within departments.

Clifford Neuman, director of the USC Center for Computer Systems Security, said the mayor's initiatives are, in part, an attempt to create incentives for employees to experiment. Unlike those in the private sector, workers in a sprawling public bureaucracy may not always perceive a direct benefit from investing time and money in new procedures or technologies, he said.

Garcetti's award creates a way to recognize innovators, and the $1-million fund encourages employees to take chances without having to risk their agency's resources, Neuman said.

Along the same lines, the city launched an academy last month to train employees to think critically about their work — how it's done and how it might be done better.

But some think improving services also requires dealing with the realities that front-line workers face.

Simboa Wright, who maintains city sewers, said he likes that the administration is welcoming workers' ideas. But he's most concerned about lack of staff in his department.

"We're working harder just trying to make sure that we ... maintain the system," Wright said, adding he would rather Garcetti put money into hiring more employees.

That would really be "back to basics," Wright said.

For many public agencies, there's a tension between innovating and keeping up with the demands for service, said Mark Greninger, a Los Angeles County expert on utilizing GIS-technology to improve public services.

"We can't really fail," he said. "You're going to be run over the coals if all of a sudden trash stops being picked up because you tried to implement a new system."

But Garcetti said he wants employees to take smart risks and "fail forward."

That's not a novel notion at City Hall. Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, a successful venture capitalist, made streamlining operations a priority and added a UCLA business management expert to his team. He told The Times a month before he took office in 1993 that he would empower employees to take chances "and with that, in effect, forgive them when they make mistakes."

Two decades later, Garcetti is sounding similar themes.

Chatman, the UC Berkeley business professor, said the mayor appears to be fulfilling the first requirement of establishing a culture of innovation: soliciting new ideas and ensuring they're considered.

The second step — implementing those ideas — "is where most organizations fall down," Chatman said.

How far Garcetti will be able to go in achieving broad, meaningful improvements in City Hall efficiency and responsiveness remains to be seen.

Travis Longcore, a faculty associate at USC's GIS Research Laboratory, said disrupting old ways of doing things in government requires time, partly because it can affect hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

Public institutions "change slowly," he said. "You can't just say, 'Here's a better app, let's download it and use that.'"

soumya.karlamangla@latimes.com

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