In this technological world, the public sector should find the smartest ways to leverage the latest technology in its efforts to extend quality service to its constituents. What differentiates a smart city from others is not its possession of the most sophisticated technological advancements, but its way of figuring out how to efficiently use what is available to it.

In this episode, Abhijit Verekar taps into Rick Cole’s rich experience as a public servant in California for many decades. Rick served as the City Manager for Santa Monica from 2015 to 2020. He has held other public posts, including that of Deputy Mayor for the City of Los Angeles from 2013 to 2015 and Mayor of the City of Pasadena from 1992 to 1994. Join in and listen to Rick’s take on open data, cybersecurity, leadership in technology, and tech literacy.

AV: Our guest is Rick Cole. He is the former City Manager of the City of Santa Monica and a bunch of other places. Rick was named as the Top 25 Doers, Dreamers, and Drivers of 2015 by Governing Technology. I’m sure it didn’t stop in 2015. Rick, welcome to the show.

I am delighted to be on with you.

AV: Rick, you’ve had a long career in municipal management. How did you end up as the city manager?

That’s a long story and a convoluted one. I grew up in Pasadena at a time of enormous change. 

At a young age, I was drawn into the whirlpool of community politics. First, in education in high school, as we became the first city west of the Mississippi to be ordered by a federal court to integrate our schools, which were racially segregated at the time. A lot of people find it hard to believe that a city like Pasadena would have stark racial and class lines. In fact, that is part of the history of Pasadena. I was thrust into the making of history as a high school junior. That led me ultimately to become involved in running a campaign of my former high school government teacher for the City Council.

I got him elected. I joined him two years later as the second-youngest ever City Council member in Pasadena history. I spent 12 years in local government as an elected official, a City Council member, vice mayor, mayor. Then, I moved on to get involved in city management largely serendipitously. I had the opportunity in the community of Azusa, which is a working-class suburb, east of Pasadena in Southern California. They had gone through seven city managers in 15 years. They were consciously looking for someone outside the traditional box. They were hesitant to hire someone who had zero experience in city management, even though I’d been very much immersed in the politics and the governance of my hometown.

I had not been an assistant city manager, a department head, or even a management analyst. They gave me the opportunity and I did that for six years. In my first year, I made a lot of rookie errors that a more experienced professional would have avoided. To use the baseball metaphor, I’ve also went after some pitches that a lot of other city managers would not have swung at, and some of those turned out to be home runs. 

The result was some pretty dramatic progress in the system, including on the front of IT. I’ll never forget my IT director came to me and tried to convince me that we should try this new search engine that was free and put it on our website. It was called Google and I looked at her funny like, “It’s called what?”

We put it on our website and the rest is history. I don’t take credit for its success, but we were definitely an early adopter particularly in local government. I went on to be recruited as the city manager in Ventura. I was one of the first city managers in America to start a blog, the forerunner of podcasts. I got a reputation in Ventura as being a tech-savvy city manager. The funny thing about that is it’s my old boss, Eric Garcetti, who I went to work for later on. He said, “They call me the most tech-savvy big-city mayor in America,” and Eric then jokes, “That’s like being the tallest building in Canoga Park.”

In other words, it’s a pretty low bar. To be a tech-savvy city manager was a low bar. When I was on the City Council, our city manager used to tell me, “My career is a race between retirement and having to put a PC on my desk, and I’m rooting for retirement.” City managers weren’t tech-savvy. That was for guys in white coats, two levels down from the city manager. The idea of an IT department and it was very much a priesthood. They are the people in charge of these big complicated IBM machines in the basement that did a few critical functions that nobody quite understood. It certainly wasn’t ubiquitous. This is not that long ago.

The public sector was well behind the private sector and fairly smug about it. It’s like, “These guys are putting millions of dollars into this new stuff, but we’re going to stick with the tried and true.” In Ventura, I called my IT director a CIO. That was one of the first in local government. It was by that time ubiquitous in the private sector. It seemed to me that any modern organization needed a Chief Information Officer and why not call them that? I elevated that person to a department head reporting directly to the city manager. That again was a radical idea. Most CIOs were buried in the finance department or the administrative services department. There was not a seat at the table.

As a result of that, I was there for nine years and we made a lot of progress. We stubbed our toe on ERP implementation – I learned a lot from that mistake. We began to democratize both inside the organization and into the community’s access to technology. When I left Ventura as city manager, I went to my church because, after nine years of change and the rigors of the great recession, the council majority had shifted and had become jaded about change and dynamism, and wanting to go back to a more traditional management approach. I figured my public sector career is probably over. I went to work for my church and played around with social media, which was then the new frontier for faith communities. We went from the worst Facebook presence in the archdiocese to the best Facebook presence.

Suddenly, we had thousands of followers in both senses of the word. Then I got recruited – I got a call from the mayor of Los Angeles right after he got elected. The funniest thing I remember is he didn’t say, “Hi, this is Eric Garcetti,” or his secretary didn’t come on and say, “Can you hold for the Mayor of Los Angeles?” I picked up the phone in my office at the church and this male voice (that I vaguely recognized but didn’t immediately place) said, “Would you like to change the world?” Since that’s why I get up in the morning, I said, “Sure, yes.” Eric Garcetti said, “I’d like you to come and work for me.” I was given the portfolio. There used to be a dozen deputy mayors in Los Angeles and the previous administration. Eric deliberately shrunk it to four. He cut the government into four pieces and gave clear lines of authority to all four of us as deputy mayors.

There was a deputy mayor for public safety, a deputy mayor for economic development, a deputy mayor for city services. I was given the portfolio of budget and innovation, which is an oxymoron in the city government. That was a deliberate choice by the mayor. He had met Mike Bloomberg in New York and Mike had given him a number of useful pointers. One of them was the budget people will squelch innovation. Put the innovation of people in charge of the budget. It was a brilliant move because not only did it put innovation in the driver’s seat, which caused everyone that wanted money from the budget office to say, “We’re doing an innovation. Let us show you all the innovative things we’re doing.” It also meant that we could green light things that ordinarily would get red-lighted.

I was given five other city’s departments to have direct oversight. One of them was the Information Technology Agency, ITA, in Los Angeles which had been eviscerated during the great recession and was in a recovery mode and they have come back so strong. We worked on open data. We worked on cleaning up the city’s multiple sprawl of websites. We worked at introducing a data-driven approach to decision-making including on the budget. We did a lot of great innovations that Ted (Ross) who took over just as I was leaving has continued in Los Angeles. 

Then, I got recruited to be the city manager of Santa Monica. I wasn’t out looking for a job. They said, “We want to put you in charge. You know a lot of great things. We’ve got a lot of resources that you don’t have in Los Angeles and you’d be the boss.” That was an offer I couldn’t refuse and I’ve been doing that for five years.

AV: You had a budget of $5.3 billion in Los Angeles. 

It’s staggering, isn’t it?

AV: It is, and you said you had a lack of resources, but I can imagine. I lived in the L.A. area for a couple of years out in Palmdale, so Los Angeles county. I can imagine it not being enough for that city. 

It also depends on how you allocate resources. In big cities – full service, older and diverse communities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, St. Louis, San Francisco –  they struggle with one foot in the past and one very tentative toe in the future. 

Another city manager in California who has a background in elected office, which is extraordinarily rare. There are two people out of the 400 and some city managers in California who were previously elected. One of them is a guy named John Russo who was a council member and then the city attorney in Oakland. He used to say, “We were in such a desperate financial shape in Oakland that we only could afford essential core services.” He said, “We defined core services very simply. If threatening to cut it filled the council chamber, that was the core service.”

The point of that half-serious, half-joke is that there’s not a constituency for technology. If you say, “We’re going to cut technology,” maybe the people who work in technology are going to be unhappy. Hopefully, the people who depend on technology are going to be unhappy. (But when you cut budgets), mostly the people who are going to be unhappy are people who receive direct services. You don’t want to lay off police officers. You don’t want to close the fire stations. You don’t want to reduce hours at the library. What do you do? You stop buying new computers, you stop buying new technology, you stop investing in the time, effort, and training that it takes to put in a new system every  six to 18 months. You are probably buffaloed by how long it takes to purchase IT software and hardware, and how cumbersome the process is.

We discovered that the minimum time it took for requests for proposals to be processed in the city of Los Angeles was 371 days. That was the minimum. That’s if everything went right. You start down that path and you’re looking at easily 18 months from, “We need to purchase. We have X problem, and we need to solve it.” You’ve got to write an RFP. You’ve got to get approved by the city attorney’s office. You’ve got to get approved by X, Y, and Z. 

You’ve got to put it out and you’ve got to have bidder’s conferences. A year and a half later, the world has changed. It’s almost like, “Let’s wait,” and so people wait. That’s the challenge in the public sector.

It is getting better and people are making progress. I’ve learned a tremendous amount. I got appointed to be the Deputy Mayor for Budget and Innovation. Suddenly, this young, charismatic, articulate, hard-driving, and experienced mayor, Eric Garcetti, who had said, “If I’m elected, we’re going to have a chief information officer for the city. We’re going to drive forward and we’re going to make progress. We’re going to get the city back working. We’re going to restore key services.” 

Suddenly, I’m the technology guy…talk about impostor syndrome! My reputation in technology was that I hired smart people and listened to them, that was the depth of my expertise. But for six months, while we were trying to hire a superstar chief information officer, I was Los Angeles’ tech guy.

They had Steven Reneker who was actually the Chief Information Officer and the Head of the Information Technology Agency. I tried to explain to the Mayor, “That’s your guy.” In the politics and the structure of Los Angeles, until Eric Garcetti, the departments and the Mayor’s office were more or less autonomous. The Mayor didn’t actually run the departments. There’s a long, convoluted history behind that. I tried to change that and I think we made some progress there on both sides of the Mayor owning the departments. It means caring about resourcing them, not just with money but with training, technology, and support. (And on the other side), the department is beginning to see the Mayor as their boss and not the (a combination of ) the City Council, the Mayor, the press, etc. like, “Let’s just stay out of trouble.” They have a boss. It’s a different level of accountability.

In six months, I got a crash course because everybody wanted to sell the Mayor some new software system. Intel, Oracle, IBM, and all these new startups were there and they all wanted 10 minutes with me. I ended up getting a crash course and reaching out to some brilliant people. The former CIO from New York and Chicago, and a young kid named Abhi Damani, who I’ve hired as our first chief data officer. I went from being an impostor as a tech-savvy city manager, having simply passed the low bar of what passed for being a tech-savvy person in city management to having some grasp of some of both the challenges and the opportunities of IT in the public sector.

AV: How did you cut through the noise? As you said, everyone wanted to sell you something with a different sticker that did the same thing or didn’t do the same thing. Did you lean on your IT department or other cities’ CIOs? How did you stay on top of this? 

That’s a great question that I won’t either practice false modesty or arrogant assurance. It was a learning experience for me to be able to cut through all of the sales pitches, the vaporware, the lobbyists, and the people that wanted to cozy up to people making important decisions. 

One advantage was I had no money. I couldn’t just say, “Yeah, sure. We’ll hope to buy that.” I’ve always leaned on this because my public sector career has mostly been in fiscally distressed environments. We (had) walked into Los Angeles with a $200 million structural deficit out of that $5.3 billion. I’ve always taken comfort in what may be an apocryphal statement.

Supposedly in the darkest days of the Battle of Britain, one of the members of the British war cabinet said, “We are out of money. We are going to have to think.” That’s where we were. That’s what innovation is about. It’s not coming up with a new thing that nobody needs. It’s solving a problem creatively in a new and different way. Subsequent to my two years in Los Angeles, during my five years in Santa Monica, I got to work with a great CIO that we had hired out of the education sector, Joseph Cevetello. He’d been the CIO at USC and Loyola. He had helped start up the King Abdullah College in Saudi Arabia. He’s helped me to articulate what I was learning by feeling along the walls down the dark halls, which means that IT is not an end, it’s a means.

It’s a way of solving business problems. The worst thing you can do is digitize inefficiency. You can speed up a process and put it online, but unless you’re in the business of process improvement, of simplifying, of customer experience, of user experience, including the people who are on the other side of the screen, the people who were providing the services and the people who need change. 

Let me give you a quick example of how this works in Los Angeles. We didn’t have a ton of money to incentivize data-driven performance improvement. The cheapest thing to do is to give out awards. I recruited a terrific retired civil servant out of the Defense Department who would run Al Gore’s reinventing government effort in Washington, DC in the White House. Bob Stone came to work for me and he became my eyes and ears out in the departments of the city. He came across a lower-level guy in the Department of Sanitation who was incredibly frustrated.

There are two kinds of ways of picking up the trash in Los Angeles. Bulky item pick-up is more complicated because it’s not the same every day service – you’ve got to send people out. Sometimes the stuff is still there and sometimes other stuff’s been added since the report. They were doing it with something that the people who don’t know Los Angeles will never have heard of called Thomas Guides. It is a book of maps of Los Angeles, physical paper maps. This was 2013, not 1947. They were physically drawing maps for the drivers and xeroxing the pages in the map book. They were sending the drivers out with these maps. They were recording what happened in spiral-bound notebooks that they then turned into some secretary who would have to then type it.

A more manual and inefficient system than that would be hard to imagine! This guy was desperate to try to modernize it. He’d found a vendor who had a program that was willing to offer it for free because he wanted to pilot it and wanted to get somebody to adopt it. He went to his bosses and they said, “They’ll need to put that on their phones and we’ll have to give them a phone or an iPad. Those are $600. “What if they drop it?” We’ve got to buy a new one. “What if they lose it?” We’ve got to buy a new one. “What if they watch porn and are on Eyewitness News?” City workers watch porn on city time – live at 11! 

I was for giving these guys iPhones and iPads. What Bob Stone and I did was we went to the sanitation bosses and we asked, “How much does a trash truck cost?” “$250,000.” “You let these guys drive a $250,000 vehicle that could run over a kid and cost the city $9 million worth of legal claims, but you won’t give them a $600 iPad?”

We sort of shamed them into doing that. When the awards were being handed out because of course (the process) is revolutionized, the dispatch of trucks, they were all there posing for the pictures when the Mayor came to give an award. It’s that kind of hidebound resistance that isn’t the fault of those managers. They are literally disincentivized. They’re going to get in more trouble for getting on Channel 11 because somebody lost an iPad or somebody will watch porn on the iPad than they are going to get credit for doing something efficient and smart. 

We tried to reverse those incentives. We tried to get people to see that if you take risks, if you’re entrepreneurial, if you adopt new technology, if you’re smart about using technology to solve real business problems, then that’s the way to career success and personal satisfaction.

AV: This was in 2013. You’d be surprised how many clients we run into or do work with that are still in that spot. 

I would not be surprised because I’ve been in the public sector for 37 years. I’m proud to serve the public. I passionately believe that what we do is usually more important than selling dog food or putting on the next Super Bowl. It’s not a glamorous business and it is a business where the public is remarkably poorly informed for a democracy. You don’t have to be well-informed if you live in Putin’s Russia or you live in China. If you’re in charge of electing the people to govern you, then you have to know something about government. 

Back in New England, in the fabled days of the town meeting, once a year you had to gather and vote on the budget. Everybody in town, at least all the white males in those days would gather on a Tuesday night and go through the budget.

You can’t have 4.3 million people gather on a Zoom call and go through a $5.3 billion budget. But there does need to be a higher level of democratic literacy in our country. We have serious problems like pandemics, economic crises, and homelessness. The public needs to have a better understanding of what the challenges are to fixing those problems, what their role is in fixing those problems, particularly a higher level about public policy on technology. 

We’re in the era of technology. You and I haven’t discovered some secret truth. This is obvious to anyone paying attention, it’s like the military drove certain times in world history, industry drove things in certain times in history, and religion drove things at certain times in history. Technology is driving the times we’re living in. What steam was to the 19th century, and what oil was to the 20th century, digital brainpower is what’s driving the 21st century. That’s the fuel that drives who we are and what we do. The dialogue around technology in the public sector is mainly about some poor State IT director who bought a very expensive system for the DMV that went south. Let’s have a state assembly investigation, a state auditor’s report, and lampoon them. Nobody gets fired but there’s a lot of embarrassment and then they spend $7 million trying to start over again and do it better.

There’s no intelligent discussion about where we ought to use technology. Where we shouldn’t be the first to innovate. (Where) we should let other people take the scar tissue. Should we be buying from big companies, from little companies? How do we change the procurement system? How do we attract bright people into the public sector to be in charge of technology and to do the front work? How much of that is in the house? How much of that is the contract? Those are all interesting and important issues that affect the quality of life and the standard of living of people in California. We’re the fifth-largest economy in the world and we’re not having that conversation.

AV: When you were in charge of that large city, technology-wise.

No one is in charge. I had some influence.

AV: You had responsibility though. If those iPads were to be lost, it eventually would have pointed back at you. You’ve got a lot of vision. How do you translate that to the techie that only understands software or networks? The ideas you’re talking about need to be translated so they can be implemented. How do you do that?

It’s an art and it’s a science. There are certain things that make sense in almost any environment. There are some certain things that you have to adapt to the time and the place you’re in. All politics being local, including organizational politics. The most important challenge in our world and in microcosm in city governments is our inability to speak and work across silos. The public sector and the private sector just do not understand each other. It’s almost like speaking Bulgarian. Even inside city governments, police departments and libraries have completely different cultures and incentive systems.

In a big city like Los Angeles, that has 102 fire stations and 74 libraries, even in the library, there’s a difference between a library branch in San Pedro and the main library downtown. The ability to enhance and translate communication is the key. You asked about how do you bridge the gap between a vision of the role of technology and the tech people in the trenches trying to implement a new software system? It does require an enormous capacity for training. 

That’s one thing that the public sector is terrible at. In Santa Monica, I inherited one of the best in-house training institutes that I’ve ever seen. My predecessor called it the Santa Monica Institute and the motto was, “We’re the city that learns.”

Setting up a learning culture is critical. I tried to do that in the Mayor’s Office of Budget Innovation. Every other week, we’d take an hour at the end of the day and expose my team of 30 people to smart people who had ideas about how to change the government. 

Were people busy? Yeah. Did it take time away from them doing activities? Yeah, but it’s sharpening the saw. If tech people do not understand the business needs of their internal clients, they cannot be useful to their internal clients. As we serve the public at the front lines, the internal service departments, finance, technology, and human resources have to understand the business needs of their customers, just like our frontlines need to understand the needs of our citizen customers. The only way to do that is training, dialogue, and intentionality.

If you say, “Here’s the (City’s) technology guy. Tell him what you need,” the (front-line department) technology person has to be trained not to say, “Buy me this software.” They have to go through a process of understanding not what they want but what they need. The librarian went to the American Library Association and they stopped by a booth and somebody sold them on some technology system. He then goes to the IT people and they say, “We want to buy this system.” The IT people are either saying no or the finance people are saying no, but no one asks, “What problem are you trying to solve? Maybe we already have a system that could be adapted to work here or we have a system that will work with this.”

I used to say that the role of the IT people inside the city government was to ask three questions. The first question of any new technology idea, startup, new products, a new approach to digitizing something. One: does it work for the customer from a user standpoint? Two: does it work? There are a lot of things that look great on paper. Do we have the capacity to have the training, technology, and equipment? Three: Does it work together with all the other things that we have? If you have 87 different systems and they all work to solve 87 different problems, but they don’t all work together, then you have cacophony, inefficiency, and lots of workarounds. Those are the three simple questions. Does it work for the customer? Does it work? Does it work together with our suite of technology solutions?

That’s the role of the tech people. It isn’t to have all the answers. It’s to ask the right questions and to go to the people who have business needs and force them to answer those questions. It’s not to say, “I want to buy this thing that I saw at a trade show,” but rather to say, “What is it that you want? What’s the problem you want to solve?” You would save an enormous amount of money and get far more beneficial results if those questions were asked continually through the process. Call it Six Sigma or total quality management or continuous improvement. Call it Fred for all I care, but in today’s world, when the rest of the world is moving so quickly, you have got to be continually asking the question, “Does this still work?” We don’t have the time and we don’t devote the time in the public sector to asking those questions. It’s like, “get out of my way. I’ve got to implement the ERP system that I bought three years ago and is a year behind schedule.”

AV: The ego gets attached to the project. It becomes a signature project. 

No, that never happened!

AV: You ran a good shop. A few things you mentioned resonated with me a lot. Ask the right questions. You may find a different answer that works for you. What are you trying to solve? Do you think that is the core foundation of a viable long-term IT strategy for any city?

It’s certainly the core of the short to medium term. The longer-term is an even more profound challenge because the world is changing, your organization is changing, and technology’s changing. A plan that’s based upon things that you can’t nail down is not a useful plan because things are not nailed down. A plan needs to be a set of guidelines, objectives, and goals that help you navigate that change. You’re not locked into something where a pandemic comes along and totally changes the game. That’s not easy because if it becomes too general, too abstract, and isn’t grounded in reality, then it’s not useful at all. It’s just something you stick on the wall and nobody pays any attention to, or you stick on a shelf and nobody ever opens.

If it’s too limited, specific, or prescriptive as well, then it’s not useful to you because it’s like a straitjacket. It doesn’t allow you to move, to change, and to be dynamic. That’s the art part. The science is you can open a book and read somebody who’s got a formula for how you do long-term IT strategy. But it has to be tied to some very basic principles that are tied into your business. That’s another word. I use the word business in the public sector and it causes some of my colleagues to want to jump out the window or throw me out the window. I use business, not in the sense of, “I think that the government is a business or should be run by business.” I use it in the sense of, “What is it you’re doing?”

For 99.5% of my colleagues in the public sector, the business they are in, the activity, the mission, the goal is to provide services. When I question that, they look at me like, “Are you from Mars? That’s what we do. We provide services. Some city governments do the libraries. Almost all of them do police. Some do fire departments and parks. They regulate land use. Those are the services that we provide. We’ve been providing them since the dawn of man. We will be providing them when the nuclear holocaust finally happens. That’s what we do. That’s what city governments are for. What is so complicated about explaining this to you?”

I think that’s 100% wrong. It’s wrong historically and it’s wrong in the contemporary situation. We are not in the business of providing services. We think we are in the same way that Blockbuster thought they were in the business of renting videos. When Netflix came along and said, “We’re going to mail your videos,” Blockbuster laughed, “These ridiculous startups. We’re 20 minutes away from every American. In 20 minutes, they can have the movie they want. Why would they wait three days to get something from you people delivered by snail mail?” What Netflix grasped, which Blockbuster didn’t, was they were in the business of delivering content. They decided not to go into the incredibly expensive capital project of buying or leasing 3,000 stores, hiring up staff, equipping them, signage, advertising, and all that stuff.

They were using the mail, which already existed. When streaming came along, because they weren’t tied to their delivery system, they immediately jumped on streaming and immediately destroyed Blockbuster. Instead of waiting 20 minutes to drive to a Blockbuster, you could turn on your computer and you could get the movie. Netflix grasped that they were in the business of delivering content and they were even smarter than that, which is why they’re doing so well. They realized they weren’t in the business of delivering content. They were in the content business. Now they make content and pretty good content. Someone may come along and kill them, but they’ve been incredibly successful by being smart about what business is.

We are not in the business of delivering services. We are in the business of solving today’s problems. The services that we currently provide were invented to solve yesterday’s problem. They were invented to solve the problems of industrializing America. We started the first municipal fire department in Cincinnati in 1853. The first municipal police department was started in London in 1827. The first public library, arguably you could give Benjamin Franklin the credit, but it was not a public library. It was the equivalent of a nonprofit. All of the institutions which we currently take for granted as functions of city government were invented for the problems of the day 50, 100, 150 years ago. None of them were invented for today’s problems.

What we’ve done is we’ve adapted. It’s like you can adapt to the rotary phone nowadays. It’s pretty hard to do a Zoom call on a rotary phone, but you can still make phone calls on a rotary phone. We’re still making phone calls on the rotary phone of the 20th-century government when we should have invented the iPhone of the 21st-century government. That’s where technology is enormously helpful. I discovered this because as an elected official with a limited amount of money, mindshare is so much cheaper than physical share. Yes, physical is important. We are physical beings, we inhabit physical places, we live in cities, but much of today’s world is not physical. For 1/50 of the investment that it takes to build a new convention center, you can spend that on marketing or virtual meetings.

AV: A lot of buzzwords get thrown around in technology and in municipal government. A “smart city” is one that is often thrown out there. What is your definition of a smart city?

I hesitate because it has become, like many terms, almost meaningless. It had its most tangible manifestation in so-called connected cities, the Internet of Things. You’d be able to marshal all kinds of real-time data to manage traffic and can do all of those things. From our conversation, I’m not entranced with the technology of technology. God bless those who are. That’s incredibly important. The smartest cities are people that are smart about using technology, not necessarily about using the smartest technology. 

Maybe that’s because I run into them in my circles, but I don’t know anyone who takes advantage of all of the capacity of the computer that sits in their pocket. You might have half a dozen apps that you use. You might be one of those tech-savvy people that have 30 or 40 apps that you use, but there are a million apps out there and not all of them are Angry Birds. Some of them are useful.

No one has figured out how to tap all of the capacity that we now have at our fingertips. My definition of a smart city is not the city that has the newest whizzbang, gizmos, and gadgets. The smart city is one that is smart about using technology and getting the most out of it, which is not necessarily getting the newest. 

Let me give you a real-world example from Santa Monica. If your eyes are on the challenge of homelessness, our principal source of data is (the annual Homeless Count.) Once a year, we send people out to count people on a February night. We mobilize about 300 volunteers and they tromp around the city. It’s a pretty sophisticated effort. We divide the city into quadrants. We have lots of detailed instructions. 

You do a two-hour reaching. It’s all very well run, but it’s once a year. The next morning our public works people will encounter some of the people that got counted the night before waking up in the park that may make (the Public Works crew’s) life a little difficult in doing their job. One of those homeless people getting roosted out of the park may end up sleeping on the sidewalk. Some citizen or business person will then call the fire department, and we’ll send a firetruck with four very well trained and fairly expensive professionals who are skilled in medical aid. They’ll show up and they’ll find, “You’re sleeping. Never mind. We’ll go back to our fire station.” That person may be walking down the street and cause a disturbance. The police get called and two or three squad cars emerge. They have a conversation for fifteen minutes with this person. They concluded that he’s not a danger to himself or others. He hasn’t broken any laws.

He then wanders off to the library where for one reason or another, someone might complain about how he smells or what he’s dragged into the library. None of our people talk to each other about this person. Each one of our people has encountered a complete stranger. We haven’t counted these people. The night before we counted 1,000 people, but we haven’t counted this individual. Where does he come from? How long has he lived there? What are his needs? Is he mentally ill? Does he have a substance abuse problem? Is he recently paroled from jail? Is he down on his luck? Does he just need $100 more a month to supplement his SSI benefit to keep a roof over his head? None of that. We’re flying completely blind and spending an enormous amount of taxpayer money and time on this single individual with utterly no positive outcome.

I worked with Joseph Cevetello, the CIO that I mentioned. He went to the Digital Health Lab at USC. They partnered him up with a startup called Akido. Over the next year, they worked up a program they called Connect that connects the fire department and police department. 

Ultimately, we’re rolling out to the library and public works people. Not only does it allow those people to talk with each other, have a picture, and begin to get non-privacy (protected) basic information. Not as medical records or what have you, but his age, where he comes from, etc. and to be able to then connect to a system that the county runs called HMIS. It’s the Homeless Management Information System. In that system, all of the nonprofits are supposed to coordinate so they’re not duplicating.

A guy goes in the morning to the food bank, and in the afternoon, he goes to get a shower at the shelter, and then in the evening, he goes to the warming shelter. The federal government and the LA Homeless Services Authority mandates that these nonprofits in order to get money have to use this system. Connect connects our first responders and our frontline people with the HMIS so that if we can find out, “This guy is a client. He has a case manager. He missed his last two appointments, but let’s reconnect him with the case manager.” What if we arrest him? We get his case manager to know that he’s been arrested. Instead of dumping him back on the street, we can reconnect him coming out of 24 hours in our jail cell to a case manager. This is technology being used to solve a problem. To me, that’s what a smart city is. It’s not someone who says, “We’ve got this cool new startup app. Why don’t you buy it and figure out what we can do with it afterward?” Have a business process and business needs in the driver’s seat and have technology as the engine and the transmission that turns the wheels.

AV: I love that because I live and breathe business process redesign. We did a study with Montgomery County, Maryland, which is one of the largest counties in this country in terms of population. They were trying to do similar stuff where a person that has low income is trying to get temporary cash assistance. We mapped this whole process up and drew it. In 140 or 150 different steps of the process, they were asking for the person’s ID 26 different times because they are going to different buildings for different parts of the process. Within the same agency, they were asking for the person’s story 26 different times. 

Forget about outside scrutiny. For me, that would be embarrassing. If once I saw that and I said, “I’m okay with that. That’s not my problem,” I’d be ashamed of myself.

AV: The point is they didn’t know. They had no idea. You had to bring all these people in the same room and spend a week with them saying, “How do you do the same thing in the next building over and not know what your cohorts are doing?” 

My experience with people experiencing homelessness is in the time it takes them to show their ID 26 different times, they’ve lost their ID once or twice. That means getting on the bus, going to the DMV, getting a new ID, and having it mailed to an address that they only get to occasionally. 

The nightmare of missed opportunities and then they’re twice as discouraged about going down that path again. “I tried that, but that didn’t work.” It becomes that much more cumbersome, expensive, and frustrating to try to solve a problem because the first two or three efforts to solve the problem went awry.

AV: They don’t see any results or movement. It’s discouraging. 

That’s the other thing about a smart city. We have a tendency in the public sector to compare ourselves (to others in the public sector.) Like everybody else, we talk about best practices, and best practices are drawn from our cohort. We say, “Beverly Hills is doing this. Culver City is doing this, Malibu is doing this, West Hollywood is doing that. We’re right up there. We’re ahead of them or we’re right behind them or we’re doing just as well as them.” But that is not (the right standard).

One of the things that you mentioned about IoT and smart cities is that there’s a lot of data being collected. Is one of the definitions then for a smart city is it’s a city that utilizes the data to have positive outcomes for citizens?

My mantra as head of the Mayor’s Office of Budget and Innovation, we were driving a data-driven approach to problem-solving, taking a page out of CompStat, total quality management, Six Sigma, and process improvement. My mantra was, “It’s not the numbers that count. It’s what you do with the numbers.” 

The four principles of CompStat, which is the basis of LAPD’s approach to crime-fighting, are timely and accurate data is the first one. The development of effective tactics is second. Rapid deployment of resources is the third and relentless assessment and follow-up is the fourth. None of those things has anything to do with crime, cops, police, law enforcement.

Those four principles, timely and accurate data, development of detective tactics, rapid deployment of resources and relentless assessment, and follow-up. Those apply to libraries and to almost any activity that can be measured. It has been enormously effective in law enforcement, but it has broader applications. It’s not the numbers that count. The timely and accurate data is great, but what do you do with the (numbers)? You develop effective tactics and rapidly deploy resources to test. You do a lot of rapid iteration. The ten words that are most important in the English language for local government are, “Doing more of what works, do less of what doesn’t.”

We spend an enormous amount of time, energy, and money developing comprehensive plans, strategic plans, and five-year plans. Plan, plan, plan! We do very little rapid iteration to test things just to figure out not what we think will work because we all sat around the conference room for three meetings every other week and we came up with this document, but we actually put the cones out on the street and see where the traffic goes around them. We put up a sign in the library and saw if that changed behavior. We put police officers in alleys on weekends to reduce auto burglary. You try stuff and some of it works and you do more of that. Some of it doesn’t and you do less of that. That is what data-driven is about. It’s not about having a lot of data. You can drown in data.

That was the story of open data. We were so proud. Santa Monica was the only city under a million in the top ten on the ratings for open data. Somebody rated it the Top 10. I was very proud because before I came to Santa Monica, Los Angeles rocketed to the top. We passed Chicago and New York. The ratings were on transparency and availability. We are putting all this data out there on the web for anybody to use, but nobody was using it. It’s not the numbers that count. It’s what you do with numbers. You need data and that also helps you inform what kind of data you need. Some data isn’t all that useful. At least you haven’t figured out how it’s useful. Some data that you need is not available. You have to figure out how you’re going to get that data.

Data ought to drive decisions. It is not an end of itself. It’s to manage the key to being smart. It’s not having gigabits of data. It’s about figuring out how to use it. Waze, which is a commercial project uses gigabytes of data but it’s incredibly useful. It’s very useful because it’s solving a problem, creating a few others by the way. It’s solving a problem and it’s user friendly. Those two elements are what make data useful. It translates static data into useful information upon which you can base decisions. Decisions ought not to be based upon your gut, although sometimes that makes sense. It ought not to be based upon ideology, although it’s helpful to have a framework. It ought to be based on results. Do more of what works, do less of what doesn’t.

AV: That collection of data and having a lot of it or less of it. With cybersecurity and ransomware, it’s not a buzzword as much as a smart city is, it’s a real threat. What are your thoughts on how that’s going to evolve in the next few years? 

Joseph Cevetello was an early adopter of the focus on cybersecurity when only a handful of cities have been held up for ransom. It’s a challenge to get people to invest in because like preparing for a pandemic or an earthquake, it’s easier to wait and see after it’s happened. It’s disastrous to do that but that’s the default. 

For us in Santa Monica, we did invest heavily not just in the tech side of cybersecurity, but oftentimes it’s the human error that’s your weakest link. We did a lot of mandatory training and testing. It’s not being punitive but using that as a teachable moment to help people realize that they were putting themselves, their work, and their city at risk by falling for fishing gambits. Cybersecurity is key and it’s undervalued. Cities learn that to their detriment. “It can’t happen here” is one of the most insidious phrases in the English language.

AV: We’ve seen that in multiple ways in the last couple of months. Cybersecurity, which also translates to physical security, because everything is network-managed. In the role of the CIO, CTO, chief data officer, or whatever you call it, security is one aspect of their evolving job description. How else do you think the role is going to change in the next five years? 

Those are all slightly distinctive roles. I think there’s a value, depending on the scale of the organization, the parts of the organization, its resources, and its commitment to technology, you may want to have three different people working together or one person doing all three jobs. All of those roles are going to evolve. 

If I could conclude with the most useful lessons for the audience whether they’re in local government or whether they simply are citizens who can help local government do a better job, the biggest challenge for technology and for leadership in technology is tech literacy, which is different from tech-savviness. It’s understanding technology.

Americans are drowning in information, cat videos, and the celebrity trivia of the moment. Human brains have never been so bombarded with images, words, and inputs. From little children to older people, we’re drowning in 24-hour a day stimulation. 

Stepping back in 5,000 years of human history, this is not the first technology. We discovered fire, the wheel, steam, and electricity. Technology is not new but the pace of it has sped up and the power of it has grown. How humans use technology or misuse technology or fail to take advantage of it, these are not new questions. For citizens in America who are in a particular community or state, we need to be having a deep discussion about technology, what we want it to do for us and how we want to protect ourselves from it.

I don’t mean that that’s an easy conversation or there are easy answers or even if there are lasting answers. There will be contingent answers that will change with time as technology evolves. But to not have that conversation is like drifting down the Niagara River. You can hear the waterfall and it’s sort of a dull roar for a while. It gets louder and louder and then all of a sudden, you wake up and you see the white water, the cliff, the mist coming up from the 300-foot waterfall. You say, “We’ve got to turn the boat around,” and it’s too late. You can hear the roar. Technology is changing our lives. It ought to be changing our government. It ought to be changing our democracy in ways that are intentional, not ways that are accidental. We shouldn’t go over the fall. We should steer our course to where we want to go.

The only way to do that is to have those conversations. That’s what a smart city is. It’s a city that’s having this conversation, not just in the world of IT, but beyond the world of IT where the people who know IT are talking to people who don’t know IT. There’s a mutual exchange of the citizens, government officials, press who don’t understand technology (with the) people who do need to help explain it. Those other people (the non-tech people) need to explain to people driving technology that not every gizmo and gadget you come up with is useful or timely. 

Just because Facebook is worth billions of dollars doesn’t mean it’s a completely beneficent influence on our lives and our society and our democracy. We can talk all day about government procurement of technology and its application. But I think there needs to be a larger discussion about democracy, community, and technology.

AV: It goes back to what you said. It’s a tool, not an end. It’s a means to an end. You can tell it what to do, where most people and most agencies get caught up and they can’t figure out “it” of IT. What do you want “it” to do for you? Once you have that, then you have to constantly be on the lookout for the rapids and not just float about. What’s the next challenge that you’re going to take on? 

That depends. The challenge that appeals to me most is the existential challenge for urban America prior to the pandemic that is still going on. We’ll see how it sorts out. Homelessness is the canary in the coal mine of the weaknesses in the frame of our social fabric. I think the pandemic is going to make it worse, but it’s also going to offer us some opportunities. 

I’ve been an Angeleno all my life. I love this place. I grew up in Pasadena, a city manager in three different cities around Los Angeles. I worked for the city of Los Angeles. This Southern California, Los Angeles world is one of the most interesting places on earth.

In 2028, we’re going to welcome back the world for the third time. I lived through the 1984 Olympics. That was a proud moment for me and I am proud of Los Angeles for how well we pulled off those little bits. In 2028, we cannot hide 50,000 people if they are living in the streets. We can’t hide them for two weeks. We either make a huge dent in that problem in the next eight years or we’ll embarrass ourselves in front of the whole world. 

The current situation is politically, economically, or morally unsustainable. No matter the amount of money the IT unicorns make, no matter how fantastic the opening ceremonies might be, no matter how much content in Hollywood is being broadcast all around the world to seven billion people…I think it’s critical when the world comes in 2028, we can show that we’re a city that works for everyone and hasn’t left tens of thousands of people out on our streets. I don’t know what role that means, but that to me is one of the bigger challenges. There’s a role for technology in helping us solve that problem. Definitely a role for having us be accountable for solving that problem.

AV: I’ve enjoyed our talk. I hope that we can meet in person and shake hands and continue this conversation. Thank you so much. 

From your lips to God’s ears, as they say.

AV: Take care and I’ll see you soon. Thank you, Rick.

About Rick Cole

Rick Cole is a change agent. Honored by Governing Magazine as one of their “Public Officials of the Year” in 2006 for “intense focus on the details that add up to a vital city.” Winner of the 2009 “Excellence in Management Award” of the Southern California Municipal Management Association and recognized among “Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers of 2015” by Governing Technology magazine.

Deputy Mayor for the City of Los Angeles 2013-15; City Manager of Ventura 2004-2012; City Manager of Azusa from 1998-2004; Southern California Director of the Local Government Commission; and former Council member and Mayor, City of Pasadena.

Rick Cole was the city manager of Santa Monica, California from 2015 to 2020. Cole previously served as the city manager of the City of Azusa, which was cited by an editorial in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune as the “most improved city in the San Gabriel Valley” during his tenure. He later served as the city manager of Ventura, California from 2004 to 2012. On his resignation, the Ventura County Star editorialized: “The Star hopes at least one thing won’t change after Mr. Cole’s last day on the job: The high level of professionalism and integrity we’ve seen in the city under his management and leadership.” The Star said Cole “led a downtown revitalization, guided Ventura through daunting budget challenges and oversaw important but unsexy work such as improving public works, water, and sewer operations.”

He served 12 years in elective office in his hometown of Pasadena, California, including as deputy mayor from 1990 to 1992 and as mayor of Pasadena from 1992 to 1994. He was a co-founder of the newspaper Pasadena Weekly. He became the parish administrator at the San Buenaventura Mission in 2012. In July 2013, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Rick to the position of deputy mayor for Budget and Innovation. On May 27, 2015, Rick Cole was named the city manager of Santa Monica, by a unanimous vote of the city council.

Cole served as the city manager of Santa Monica, California from 2015 until his resignation on April 17, 2020.

In 2006, he was selected as one of Governing Magazine’s “Public Officials of the Year” which observed, “First in Azusa, and now on a larger scale in Ventura, he has offered ample proof that good politics and good management aren’t as different as is sometimes assumed.”

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