Just-In-Time…. Pothole Repair?!

The rise of new digital tools is transforming how Philadelphia and other government entities across the country deliver products and services to constituents. But can the public sector keep up in the age of Amazon?

Digitally-savvy voters are demanding faster, more transparent delivery of services than government provides [1]. Cities like Philadelphia (“Philly”) are trying to close this gap by adopting systems like “311,” a centralized digital platform that allows residents to submit requests – via mobile app, web browser, or phone – for everything from pothole repairs to graffiti removal [2]. Previously, residents with a reportable issue had to find the relevant government department, find a phone number, contact them with the problem, and hope it was resolved. There was little accountability, follow-up, or transparency. With 311, all problems can be submitted and tracked via a single platform in a matter of minutes. Further, 311 is just the tip of the iceberg: other digital tools are allowing cities to compress lead times and get products/services to people faster.


What’s not to love?

While digitalization is great for consumers, it poses significant challenges to policymakers by both increasing demand for services and increasing transparency around their delivery, thereby highlighting any poor performance (figure 1). Indeed, providing customers more products/services with lower defect rates at a faster pace (as 311 facilitates) is hard enough for private sector companies to implement – and they can at least profit from it by charging customers more. It’s more complicated for the public sector.

Philly faced major backlogs in its first year of 311: the city did not perform ~25% of requests in a timely manner (if at all). In addition, 33% of residents who requested a service reported being dissatisfied with the city’s response [3]. 311’s data collection and reporting functionality made it easier to hold the city accountable compared to years prior when no similar data was collected.

The implementation of digital tools like 311 also requires significant internal readjustment within City Hall. Departments that previously relied on distinct inbound call systems to service one-off resident needs must align their IT and organizational structures to receive orders from 311 and quickly fix reported problems. Since 311 is constantly changing, departments have to keep up. Of particular concern is the increasing volume of resident requests: recently Philly used a human-centered design approach to revamp 311’s interface leading to a 50% increase in submissions [4].

Further, digital systems like 311 aren’t free: Philly’s Office of Innovation and Technology’s budget is $84 million, a 26% increase since FY16 [5].

[Figure 1] Increased accountability: Philly’s 311 system allows residents to see the status of all requests submitted around the city, making public any failure to address concerns in a timely manner | Source: Philly 311 website


City of digital love

Philly recently announced a $120 million IT investment to improve on its current suite of digital tools to better fulfill promises of improved constituent services. The money is being used to digitize processes that rely on cumbersome systems with long order processing and delivery lead times. For example, it is digitizing License & Inspection services by allowing businesses to schedule inspections, apply for permits, and register for licenses online – services previously requested in-person [6-7]. Meanwhile, digital investments for Fleet Management allow it to lower inventory and maintenance costs [8]. Part of the investment has also gone to migrating 311’s backend to Salesforce. That will allow the city to better track, crunch, and share data [9]. Down the line, the city wants to move 311 to a predictive model to be able to foresee and preemptively address constituent needs [10-11].

To fund these and other investments, the city is also raising revenue in a variety of ways (better tracking tax delinquency, creating/raising new taxes, etc.). The hope is that these investments in digital technology pay off in improved – rather than diminished – perceptions of government efficiency.


Digital Over-Dose

It’s easy to get over-excited about the new digital frontier and invest in systems without fully thinking through if they can be successfully integrated with existing platforms. That’s part of why the city has spent over $100 million since 2007 on failed digital systems including ones related to real estate appraisal, water billing, and aspects of 311 [12].

I urge Philly to focus on a limited number of short-term, high return digital investments like 311. Relying on longer-term contracts reduces the government’s accountability given the 4-8 year changeover in administrations; meanwhile, trying to implement too many new systems could lead to poor execution and bad publicity.

Further, the government should be willing to change payscales to invest in more technical talent. That includes recruiting more heavily from civic tech groups like Code for America and even poaching from the private sector. Having more digital-savvy employees will mean smarter acquisition and implementation of digital investments.

Philly should also focus on adopting best practices from other cities rather than trailblaze itself. This will reduce costs and improve likelihoods of success. For example, Boston is unveiling machine learning-based 311 that will make it easier to report problems [13]. Once it’s successfully implemented, Philly could use the same contractor.

Questions remain. Are under-resourced city governments truly capable of implementing technically-complex digital systems at a reasonable price? How does politics help or hurt these efforts? Time will tell.

[Word count (excluding references and photo descriptor): 796]


[1] “The Digital Government Divide: Research Shows Citizens Want More – Accenture,” accessed November 12, 2017, https://www.accenture.com/us-en/insight-digital-government-divide-research-shows-citizens-want-more.

[2] “City of Philadelphia: Submit a Request,” accessed November 12, 2017, http://www.phila.gov/311/form/Pages/default.aspx. Note: check out this website to see full list of services the City provides via 311

[3] “A Work In Progress: Philadelphia’s 311 System After One Year” (March 2010). Pew Charitable Trusts. http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/assets/2010/03/02/final-311-report-030210.pdf

[4] “Philly 311 Gets a Makeover” (March 2016). Derek Major. GCN, accessed November 12, 2017, https://gcn.com/articles/2016/03/18/philly-311.aspx.

[5] “The Mayor’s Operating Budget In Brief for Fiscal Year 2018” (June 2017). http://www.phila.gov/finance/pdfs/Operating%20Budget/FY18%20BudgetinBrief_Adopted.pdf

[6] “Overview of eCLIPSE” (Department of Licenses and Inspections) http://www.phila.gov/li/instructeclipse/pages/default.aspx

[7] Juliana Reyes, “No More Paper Permits: City of Philadelphia Is Spending $4.5M to Upgrade L&I,” Technical.ly Philly, January 29, 2014, https://technical.ly/philly/2014/01/29/city-philadelphia-licenses-inspections-tech-upgrades/.

[8] “City of Philadelphia Selects AssetWorks Fleet Management Software,” accessed November 12, 2017, http://dmnnewswire.digitalmedianet.com/article/City-of-Philadelphia-Selects-AssetWorks-Fleet-Management-Software-3280405.

[9] Juliana Reyes, “Salesforce to Build City of Philadelphia’s New 311 System,” Technical.ly Philly, August 5, 2013, https://technical.ly/philly/2013/08/05/salesforce-city-of-philadelphia-311/.

[10] Juliana Reyes, “City of Philadelphia Is Spending $120M to Upgrade IT: Status Report,” Technical.ly Philly, March 4, 2014, https://technical.ly/philly/2014/03/04/city-philadelphia-it-upgrades-adel-ebeid/.

[11] Juliana Reyes, “What the City’s New 311 System Means for You,” Technical.ly Philly, February 19, 2015, https://technical.ly/philly/2015/02/19/new-311-system/.

[12] “Wasting Millions on Failed Tech Upgrades Hurts Philadelphians,” accessed November 12, 2017, http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/commentary/wasting-millions-on-failed-tech-upgrades-hurts-philadelphians-20170814.html.

[13] Jason Shueh, “Soon, Machine Learning Will Make It Easier to Submit 311 Requests in Boston,” StateScoop, accessed November 12, 2017, http://statescoop.com/soon-machine-learning-will-make-it-easier-to-submit-311-requests-in-boston.


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Student comments on Just-In-Time…. Pothole Repair?!

  1. Great write-up and interesting questions that you pose. First, I think one of the key factors here that you brought up is how the city governments can attract talent to work in the public sector, which is generally known for its bureaucratic, slow-moving, and low-paying nature. In my military experience, the Air Force has traditionally had difficulty retaining talent in certain professions that require extensive training and skills because the pay is much more lucrative in the private world (think pilots, engineers, lawyers) [1]. Not to mention, public work may seem a bit outdated in the eyes of millenials who may be looking for companies driving faster, more advanced change.

    In the case of under-resourced, or even over-resourced cities (not sure they actually exist in America) cities, it’s hard to imagine these cities using tax-payer money to invest in long-term projects when elections are generally based on very short term results.

    Ultimately, cities can certainly benefit in investing in technology for the greater utility of all its citizens. However, cities may have to do so through cutting costs internally, as raising taxes is always a political headache.

    [1] U.S. Air Force. “AF Manpower, personnel, services leaders talks recruiting, retention.” http://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/977870/af-manpower-personnel-services-leaders-talks-recruiting-retention/ Accessed November 27, 2017.

  2. The 311 system seems like an incredible way of holding cities accountable and ensuring citizen’s complaints and requests are adequately taken care of. Government is increasingly seen as inefficient and unresponsive to its citizens. This type of system can help prove to the electorate that they have a stake and a say in their operations of their city and can hold elected officials accountable to the electorate. I also think this system will help attract employees to the public sector who otherwise would have gone and worked in more technical roles in the private sector.

  3. Digital tools can undoubtedly ease some of the logistical headaches cities face on a daily basis. When it comes to communicating with constituents, reporting issues, tracking inventory and assets, the opportunities for efficiency gains are endless. However, innovative systems designed for such particular business requirements, that also satisfy a majority of the constituents’ ought to be designed thoughtfully using some of the design thinking tools we discussed in IDEO.

    This requires significant time and energy investment in the design and prototyping phases of development. I question whether governments realistically have the expertise or the capital to follow this sort of a design-heavy process. Furthermore, the double-diamond process of repeatedly diverging (discovering many ideas) and then converging (narrowing down a list of ideas and developing them further) requires capital investment up-front, before one can define fully what the end-solution will do or look-like. I worry that this fundamentally differs from the traditional government funding process which requires (or should require) extreme justification for each tax-payer dollar spent to ensure that money is spent efficiently.

    Generally, I question why governments wouldn’t contract this sort of work out to private developers. The government does not gain any synergies by doing this work themselves, they are spending on high risk (as you mention, they’ve spent $100M on failed systems) low reward (potholes and graffiti removal are not as impactful as healthcare or emergency response) investments that simply need to integrate with standard government systems. Its unclear to me why the city feels its important to build these systems in-house.

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