Free Money: $5K for Top Idea on Tech Helping Sacto


patrickatwaterBy Patrick Atwater
Special to Calbuzz

Political writer Patrick Atwater is an author, entrepreneur and frequent Calbuzz commentator who has a major jones for reforming California’s government. Following publication of his idealistic and intelligent book, “A New California Dream,” Atwater is now offering cash money through his Stag Hunt Enterprises, Inc. in an essay competition to seek out “world-beating ideas” of how technology can be brought to bear on bureaucracy in California. Details here.

In his most recent inaugural address, Gov. Brown reflected on the endemic nature of the issues California faces, issues that extend well beyond the borders of the Golden State:

brownhands“Many of these issues have confronted California one way or another for decades, certainly since the time of Gov. Earl Warren. It is sobering and enlightening to read through the inaugural addresses of past governors. They each start on a high note of grandeur and then focus on virtually the same recurring issues — education, crime, budgets, water.

I have thought a lot about this and it strikes me that what we face together as Californians are not so much problems but rather conditions, life’s inherent difficulties. A problem can be solved or forgotten but a condition always remains. It remains to elicit the best from each of us and show us how we depend on one another and how we have to work together.”

I must respectfully disagree.  I believe that recent advances in information technology have the potential to revolutionize what constitutes government, transforming how we tackle the basic task of figuring out how to live together.  And in that vein, what we face together as Californians might be most profitably framed not as conditions – facts of life we simply must accept – but as challenges, higher peaks to which we might aspire.  A condition can only be mediated or managed but a challenge can be tackled in new ways.

Here’s a crazy idea: what if the fuel for California’s next Gold Rush lay buried within its governmental bureaucracy?  Not through some policy or program but in the revolutionary power of technology to transform the very notion of government.

It’s important to remember that we no longer live in the time of Earl Warren.  The computer and internet revolutions have transformed how we as humans live, work, and play.  Yet walk into any school across the state and you’ll find a bureaucracy built around the same basic logic that the original progressive movement pioneered over a century ago.

brokengovernmentI believe in the basic principle that an effective government adapts to the realities of the world and that California’s “twisted, dysfunctional, Byzantine, gridlocked system” needs a dramatic overhaul to meet our pressing challenges – like the fact that a child’s opportunity is far too much a function of the zip code they’re born into.  I’ve spent the last few years of my life exploring how we might build a government good enough to build that needed equality of opportunity.

Yet more than anything that service has demonstrated how humbling these mountains truly are and that these challenges demand “loyalty to what is larger than our individual needs.”  In that spirit, I’d like to offer you a personal invitation and $5000 in prizes to articulate the revolutionary potential of technology solutions to California’s basic challenges – budgets, schools, water, environmental quality, and issues that go beyond our current frameworks.

Budgets How might machine readable financial data that’s easily interoperable across municipal jurisdictions transform how we manage public resources?

Education – How might a teacher to community matching platform for awesome learning opportunities be used to transform our current school model?

Water – How might recent developments in big data and the internet of things sensing technology be leveraged to adaptively manage every drop of California’s precious water?

Environmental Quality – How might new virtual pathways be leveraged to reimagine how analysis and public comment is integrated to make environmental determinations?

Terra Incognita – How might technological changes like the Singularity or Mars colonization transform what needs to constitute government?

The key goal in all of these questions is to articulate what this technological potential means for government.  What new pathways for tackling public problems are possible with these tools?  The following pages reflect my best insights from these past few years to explore that territory, providing rough maps of where you might look for gold.

These explorations are not a panacea for all of California’s ills but they do represent the possibility of a creative and pragmatic step towards building a better direction for this great state.  Still some may dismiss these changes – or this entire expedition – out of hand as unknown and unproven but let’s remember that’s just the defining nature of a frontier.

Luckily, however, if California excels at anything it’s this: pioneering the new.  Submissions are due by midnight at the end of June’s second fortnight.  We’re excited to see what gold you all dig up.

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There are 5 comments for this post

  1. avatar ReilleyFam says:

    Missing the Mark.

    The problem is not what technology can we use to improve/change govt. The problem is getting the Stakeholders to agree to use it or to agree how to use it.

    We’ve had the ability to revolutionize govt for the last 15 years. What we have not had is the willingness by all Stakeholders to set aside their benefits in order to do what is best for the masses. THAT will be the key to revolutionizing or even just improving govt. The tech changes you refer to will require a lot of people to lose things; money, power, etc. Those Stakeholders wont do that even if it is what is best for the State. They will have to be forced to do it & until we do THAT, nothing will change or even improve.

    • avatar cawaterguy says:


      Yeah, I think almost everyone in the water game recognizes that sensing technology would be helpful for instantaneous water management decisions–determining if water temperatures are optimal for protected species, whether groundwater is being overdrafted (you can tell that by the temperature in river beds), etc.

      But so what, the water’s all spoken for many times over. You have to get stakeholders to agree to concede some of their water to the environment. We can’t even do that when science is pretty much in consensus that too much water is going to human use.

      With all that said, good luck on the competition. I hope the submissions prove me wrong and have more substance than Gavin’s Citizenville.

    • avatar patwater says:

      Fair enough but in terms of building that political will some food for thought:
      “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
      – Antoine de Saint Exupéry

  2. avatar patwater says:

    Re: CA Water Guy

    So we actually came to the same conclusion that you did that the water community already sees that sort of adaptive management technology as a need. The question posted here is actually from an old draft — sloppy editing on my part. The final challenge question is: “How might interactive GIS, data visualization and other information technologies be leveraged to transform California’s tangled jurisdictions?” StagHuntEnterprises.com/water

    Which I think speaks to your point about the underlying issues and offers an illustrative example. The current convoluted Delta governance structure and panoply of mom and pop retail agencies is a big root cause of why there can be consensus without corresponding action.

    The pressing question becomes: why are consolidations so difficult? I remember working on one back in my PFM days and it was in a sense a great project to work on. Every month I’d ask my boss if there was anything new and the answer would always be a simple “nope”. Good from a work load perspective; less so for the public interest.

    Most consolidation efforts fizzle because of lack of interest from the public (or because agencies that don’t want to be dissolved use taxpayer funds to hire guns to prevent that). The biggest asset that good government folks have in such a situation is clear facts, figures and analysis making the case for restructuring.

    So again how might making those easy to understand and interactive viz a viz existing technologies like Tableau Public be leveraged in a broader effort to align California’s water jurisdictions with the realities of the world we live in?

    Or better yet how might we think creatively with incentives to ramp up the volume of that sort of good government analysis? (As an example, see the in depth we did on Glendale’s recent water rate increase http://staghuntenterprises.com/daily/2012/3/23/glendales-water-rate-increase.html )

    Thanks for the comment.



    • avatar cawaterguy says:

      I agree clear facts and clear evidence comprehensible to the semi-informed layperson is key to building the argument for a new policy.

      Why are consolidations so hard? Because a crappy status quo is less scary than a new governance structure that might affect some stakeholder in some way they can’t fully anticipate. Hetch Hetchy is a good example. With computer modeling, smart ppl have determined we could change a few other dams’ timing/storage and thus have same water and be able to restore the valley but the thought of going thru that process concerns people.

      Thanks for the thought. Maybe I’ll write one if work clears.

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