Overhauling San Francisco Government for the Digital Age

Maybe no one expects interacting with city government to be simple. But why shouldn’t it be?

San Francisco is home to companiesthat have digitized everything from hailing a car ride to picking up groceries and made it possible for you to share your Succession hot takes with people half a world away. 

But amid this private sector move to indulging ever more of our needs, wants, and whims online, hundreds of critical government services in San Francisco are still only accessible in person. 

A team inside city government is trying to change that, and they’re using the private sector innovation that San Francisco is known for in the process. Making all city services easy to use online — and making city government more efficient and effective along the way — is the mission behind a now rapidly-expanding team in the city. They’re increasing the amount of private sector help they bring in starting this year, too, drawing on pro bono teams from startups as well as tech giants like Adobe and Google. Will it all be enough to finally bring San Francisco up to speed with the digital age? 

Let’s get digital 

Carrie Bishop joined San Francisco government in 2017 as the city’s first chief digital services officer. She’s since built up her Digital Services team from just herself to 25 people tasked with what she calls improving “the customer experience of government.” 

That means taking on citywide projects like creating online access to more than 600 city services that people can currently only access in person, or figuring out how to consolidate a confusing sprawl of some 200 city websites with 300,000 pages. 

To tackle those challenges, Bishop plans to grow her team to 40 people this year. The team reports directly to the City Administrator’s Office and works with the city’s dozens of departments on digital efforts.  

What might seem tedious and nonessential on first glance, like bringing the city’s websites onto the new sf.gov domain, can provide improvements for everyone who needs to find city information online and especially for those who already face challenges accessing or understanding that information. 

As city websites are transferred to sit under the unifying sf.gov domain, the Digital Services team is working with departments to make sure the information is more user-friendly. That includes meeting federal standards for accessibility and readability, with writing at the fifth-grade reading level so it is easy to understand. The Digital Services team is working with human translators to translate some of the city’s information into Spanish, Chinese, and Filipino, because “tools like Google Translate just aren’t good enough right now,” Bishop says. City web pages laden with photos are also being revised to include fewer images so as to not use up large amounts of data for people accessing the pages with data plans.

The goal is to consolidate as many of the city’s websites as possible, Bishop tells SF Weekly, while keeping some websites, like the San Francisco International Airport’s, freestanding when they make more sense as their own domain. 

The Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs was the first city department to move to the new sf.gov domain in May 2019. That site was designed to help visitors quickly identify services like immigration legal help.  

“Lots of residents don’t understand our department structures, so they don’t understand the difference between some of our departments, which is just completely understandable,” Bishop says. “Sending them to lots of different websites to get something done is not very convenient for them.” 

The Digital Services team is also making all of the city’s permit applications available online, which is the main driver behind the team’s expansion, Bishop says. The goal is to ensure people no longer have to visit various city department websites to apply for what they need to open their business, build housing, or plan events. Ultimately, people may not even need to know which city departments they need permits from. Instead, they could search by what they’re trying to do — like opening a new bar or building a second unit — and be guided through the list of permits they’ll need. They’d receive notifications as their permit progresses.   

If successful, it would modernize a cumbersome process that’s often pointed to as one of the major hurdles when it comes to opening a business or building housing in the city. 

Tagging in the tech sector   

San Francisco has already shown it can overhaul outdated, paper-based services. One of Bishop’s favorite examples, she says, is the collaborative effort that led to the creation of the city’s affordable housing website. Before the website, someone applying for affordable housing would have to visit potentially dozens of locations to put in applications with individual landlords. 

The Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development looked to Google in 2015 for input on how to simplify the application process and bring it online. A team from Google contributed input on user experience design, software development, and project management. The resulting recommendations led to the creation of the city’s affordable housing website, which the Digital Services team continues to build out. Around 85 percent of all affordable housing applications in the city now happen through that site. 

“To me that’s kind of like the perfect arc — a good idea, an innovative way of thinking becoming scaled, and then run by an internal team,” Bishop says. 

It was one of the early instances of the city leveraging pro bono help from the tech sector, and it’s an approach the city is expanding with two programs, Civic Bridge and Startup in Residence (dubbed STIR). 

Those programs are run by San Francisco’s Office of Civic Innovation, which often works in tandem with the Digital Services team. The Office of Civic Innovation has a broader mission, helping city staff think about new approaches and resources to address specific challenges.  

STIR, launched in 2014, and Civic Bridge, launched in 2015, are both four-month programs that use ideas and experience from the private sector. The Office of Civic Innovation team guides other city staff through identifying challenges and thinking about what kinds of skills might help develop solutions. 

City needs that are mostly technology based are usually directed to seek help through STIR. Startups can apply for a four-month pro bono residency with the city that is also part of an expedited procurement process. There is a possibility for the startup to land a contract at the end of the residency if the department wants to move forward with a contract based on what the startup has demonstrated at that point. 

When the city needs a mix of skills like setting a clear strategy and thinking through how to improve processes, it can tap companies like Adobe and Google for pro bono help through Civic Bridge. The companies often bring in a team with a range of skills, from marketing staff and designers to data scientists, to help part-time for four months on a specific city challenge.    

The city still puts out contracts for consulting jobs, says Amardeep Prasad, interim director of the Office of Civic Innovation. But programs like Civic Bridge and STIR help city staff expand their rolodex of people they can reach out to when they are looking for fresh approaches to solving problems. 

“I’m a firm believer that we can do more together,” Prasad tells SF Weekly. “It’s not that we don’t have incredible talent within the city, but it is introducing sort of a fresh set of perspectives and approaches to how we’re solving really important civic challenges.” 

There is an “amazing talent pool in the city of San Francisco” with some of the top innovators in the world, she adds, so “why not tap into that to help us solve problems and produce services for residents” using the ingenuity in the private sector?

This year, the city is expanding Civic Bridge and STIR to two cohorts each per year to boost private sector collaboration. 

Bridging public and private  

For startups like San Diego-based machine-learning company GovIQ, STIR presents an opportunity to learn how to work with the public sector and see what it takes to attempt landing a government contract. 

“Without a program like this, I can’t imagine smaller companies could get involved in such big organizations like governments,” GovIQ founder Arjun Patel tells SF Weekly. “And without startups there may be a lack of innovative solutions.”

Through STIR, a team from GovIQ started working with San Francisco last year on building a machine-learning tool to identify the language being spoken by people calling 911. Without such technology available, it’s up to the human call center operators to determine the language a caller is speaking and find an appropriate translator. GovIQ’s tool is being programmed for 15 languages and could expand to include even more, Patel says. Even though the STIR cohort that GovIQ was part of has technically ended, GovIQ continues to collaborate with the city on the 911 tool. 

Working pro bono with government can present a learning curve even for well-established companies like Adobe. 

Adobe staff were used to pro bono projects with nonprofits, but there were some concerns about what it would be like working pro bono with a government for the first time, says Kim Kerry-Tyerman, senior manager of brand purpose at Adobe. Kerry-Tyerman runs Adobe’s Pro Bono program, including the San Jose-based software company’s partnership with Civic Bridge. Adobe also has offices in San Francisco. 

Civic Bridge turned out to be “surprisingly really productive,” Kerry-Tyerman tells SF Weekly. City staff were ready to adjust to the best practices that Adobe preferred to use.  

In one project Adobe worked on through Civic Bridge, it helped the Human Services Agency digitize their workflow so they are no longer managing 1,200 foster youth cases with paper records—something that was costly and caused issues like losing paperwork, Kerry-Tyerman says. For its Civic Bridge engagement with the city this year, Adobe will work with the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to create a public messaging campaign about homelessness and the city’s response to the crisis. 

The Adobe staff who participated in the Civic Bridge program with San Francisco found themselves reaping benefits, too. 

“A lot of times there’s an assumption on a pro bono engagement that the team from the private sector is going to go in, solve all their problems, share their best practices, and the knowledge transfer is just going to be one-sided,” Kerry-Tyerman says. But the Adobe staff who took part in Civic Bridge completed the program “feeling a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the way that government agencies approach their work with such limited resources and diverse customer bases.” It’s helped the Adobe team “feel much more agile and keep the customer in mind,” Kerry-Tyerman says. 

Some companies, like San Francisco-based artificial intelligence company Noodle.ai, have worked on several pro bono projects with the city through Civic Bridge and otherwise. One of Noodle.ai’s projects was building data analysis tools for the Fix-It team to look at the correlation between crime, civic life, and cleanliness or safety issues like non-working streetlights. 

The Noodle.ai team drew on multiple datasets to offer tools for statistical analysis and comparisons by geography, says Mike Godwin, director of marketing at Noodle.ai. It allowed the Fix-It team to ultimately have “better conversations with a community and have a more data-driven approach to what they were doing,” Godwin tells SF Weekly

Godwin had lunch recently with a data scientist who used to work at Noodle.ai. The former colleague said participating in Civic Bridge was his favorite project during his time with the company.  

“I don’t know if that’s a commentary on what we had him doing the rest of the time or whether that project was so good, but that was really nice to hear,” Godwin says.  

Save our (techies’) souls 

In a tweet thread about the Digital Services team’s hiring spree, Bishop noted a few of the reasons that people from the private tech sector might consider working for city government full time. 

“Maybe you just left a tech company and are looking for your next thing; maybe you’re at a tech company and you want your soul back; maybe you are in love with S.F. and you want to use your skills in your city,” she wrote. “Maybe you’re a civic tech nerd who wants to work for a city that takes this stuff seriously; maybe you’re overlooked by other organizations for bullshit reasons and you want people who will appreciate you for your skills. Whoever you are, we want you to join us.”

Whether working with the private sector through programs like Civic Bridge and STIR or bringing in people with private sector experience as employees to work on the city’s massive digital overhauls, Bishop says it’s “a way to channel that expertise for the benefit of the whole city and to give them a route to give back.”  

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