Alex Patton: Run local government like a startup company

Published: Sunday, April 21, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 11:14 p.m.

Our local governments are fond of telling the public how much they have done for the “innovation economy” in order to “allow” it to thrive.

If innovation is going to be more than a PR buzzword-filled marketing campaign, local government officials should embrace innovation by taking a break from congratulating themselves and take the time to learn from the innovation economy's entrepreneurs.

There exists an entire movement among entrepreneurs known as the lean startup philosophy. This innovation process practiced by many startups seeks to build the minimum viable project, launch the product, create tests, collect data, learn from the data and then engage in rapid iteration of the product or project.

If local officials could apply this approach to local government, we could discover what the innovators already know — this process eliminates waste by relying on the customer to drive value and product development.

Let's apply lean startup at the community level with an example: transportation planning. Local visions in transportation are massive, multi-year, multi-million dollar bets. In our community, we see activists pushing for multi-modal transportation, bus rapid transit, and a Southwest Second Avenue streetcar. A small, dedicated group is selling an expensive vision with little data and little research into actual consumer behavior.

The approach our local officials are currently taking is precisely the opposite of the lessons we learn from innovation. A truly innovative, lean startup approach would test any proposed vision first by devising a series of small-scale tests.

For example, the county could organize a transportation summit inside the Gainesville city limits at a location providing all transportation options available (walking, bus, car and bicycle lanes). We could invite the most ardent supporters of multi-modal transportation, the car-only crowd and everyone in-between. We could then observe how people actually choose to transport themselves to the summit. Such an exercise would isolate politics, yet provide valuable insight into the true transportation preferences of our citizens.

Interestingly, at the recent county summit, I did just that. After 15 minutes of observation, I discovered overflow automobile parking, one citizen arriving by bicycle and zero arrivals by RTS.

For no expenditure of funds, our community can observe people's actual behavior and collect data. After analyzing the data, this experiment logically encourages a hypothesis that local officials should re-evaluate expansive plans for multi-modal transportation and consider providing better service for the transportation mode our citizens have shown they prefer: automobiles. We should then iterate and test again.

Another possible example is the proposed Second Avenue streetcar. Some are advocating placing a huge bet on infrastructure with little actual data in building a streetcar. Officials have shown a willingness to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars developing theoretical data from consultants, but no actual data on whether citizens in that specific corridor will use a trolley to go two miles.

Here is a proposed innovative experiment: Some may remember the University City Hotel's trolley on wheels — a simple bus that boarded passengers like a streetcar and looked like a streetcar, but ran on wheels instead of tracks. As a minimal viable product, rent a streetcar on wheels and operate it on Second Avenue while conducting experiments. Experiments could be conducted for testing variables such as price, hours of operation, ticket methods and drop-off and pick-up points, noting the effects on demographics and ridership count. Experimenting could measure whether citizens find value in this proposal before investing millions of dollars.

As another example, let's test the common wisdom held by some that when provided with the choice, citizens will use alternative modes of transportation. My proposed experiment would remove all barriers to entry for riding RTS. For one week, all citizens ride the entire RTS system for free. During the experiment measure the increase, if any, in ridership, noting time of day, demographics, etc. We can then generate a hypothesis on whether price elasticity has an effect on behavior, or is it another factor?

Finally, let's take the proposed bus rapid transit. Some want this community to place a multi-year, multi-million dollar bet that their vision is correct. Before we take an expensive leap of faith, we should develop a series of small-scale experiments, collecting and sharing data, iterating and testing some more. In a city full of world-class scientists, our community surely could develop some simple experiments for little-to-no money that will observe actual behavior and measure the actual perceived value delivered by bus rapid transit.

Unfortunately, my hypothesis after observing local government for years is that we will be slow or refuse to learn from the innovation economy for a simple reason: there is a risk the experiments and data could demonstrate the vision is wrong or may need some serious iteration.

Alex Patton is president of Ozean Media, a digital agency and political consulting firm in Alachua.

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