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Can civic entrepreneurship make government more efficient?
Civic Entrepeneurship Panel, April 13, 2017
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Credit: Sean Tubbs, Charlottesville Tomorrow
(left to right) Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, Steven Olikara of Millennial Action Project and Laura Wiedman Powers of CODE2040
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Sean Tubbs | Thursday, April 13, 2017 at 9:38 p.m.

As the 21st century continues to unfold, how will the nature of government change to meet the problems that will be faced by generations to come? That was one of the questions asked Thursday during the Hometown Summit of the Tom Tom Founders Festival.

The summit, which runs through Saturday, features speakers from around the country sharing ideas on how communities can better prepare themselves for the economy of the future.

“We are very fortunate in our area that we have a lot of intellectual firepower,” said Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, who introduced a panel on how “civic entrepreneurship” might help the government to deliver services more effectively and efficiently.

The concept refers to using the same spirit behind entrepreneurship and applying that to finding innovative solutions in the public sector.

“One of the things we want to know on this panel is why things work in some place and some places don’t,” said moderator Roger Dean Huffstetler, a senior adviser to the Tom Tom festival.

Huffstetler pointed out that tech companies spend a great deal on engineering “user experiences” for customers and users. He asked the panel to state who they consider to be the “user” of government.

“Your user is the American people,” said Laura Weidman Powers, the co-founder and CEO of Code2040. The nonprofit group seeks to bring more Hispanics and African-Americans into the ‘innovation economy.’”

Weidman Powers said Code2040 is seeking to solve social issues such as inequality and racism by designing a society that works for more than one kind of “user.”

“You can use some of those principles to best serve the American people and the American economy, and the best way you can do that is to close the gaps,” said Weidman Powers, a veteran of the Obama administration.

The new mayor of Richmond said government can improve if leaders can help set expectations about what the public sector can actually use.

“When you’re the mayor of a mid-sized city, you have 220,000 users, and they can be prickly sometimes,” said Levar Stoney, adding that 28 percent of the residents in his city are under the poverty line, but they co-exist with people of great wealth.

“Everybody wants the same thing in terms of what government can deliver,” Stoney said. “They want you to fill in the potholes and pick up the trash.”

Stoney said he has chosen to be a truth-teller in terms of how government can serve the people and he said the entrepreneurial community can help solve problems.

The founding president of a nonprofit that trains young policymakers to seek nonpartisan solutions for government echoed Weidman Powers’ call for a more universal approach to civics.

“Today we’re too divided, too gridlocked and too political,” said Steven Olikara, of the Millennial Action Project. “We’re on an unsustainable track to keep kicking problems down the road.”

Olikara said he believed millennials are more open-minded, less jaded and seek solutions. More importantly, he said younger generations are less likely to be beholden to traditional interests, pointing to a willingness to adopt elements of the new economy, such as car-sharing services and crowdsourcing.

“I’m really optimistic because of that,” Olikara said. “I believe we’ll be able to have a more transparent government as a result.”

Huffstetler asked what needs to be added to school curricula to help prepare the next generation.

Olikara said people need to be taught how to listen and that the country’s political founders wrote that into the Constitution.

“If we don’t bring civil discourse back to this country, we’re going to have a lot of problems,” Olikara said.

Stoney said a willingness to collaborate is needed.

“Let’s get the people around the table that matter to solve the problem,” Stoney said, adding that local government is one area where this can happen.

Weidman Powers said Americans require skills to recognize the need to close the inequality gap. She said her organization is called CODE2040 because 2040 is estimated to be the year when whites will no longer be the largest demographic in America. To be ready, she and others want wealth inequality gaps to be closed by then.

“We see this as a systems challenge,” Weidman Powers said. The organization was founded in 2012 in order to diversify a tech sector where she said many companies claim there are few eligible African-American or Latino applicants.

“Code2040 is built on the premise that, just because you can’t find them, [that] doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” Weidman Powers said.

Olikara was asked what role the founders of the country would have thought about the state of today’s political and social discourse.

“I think they would be totally fine with the disagreement that we are seeing, but I think they would have a problem with the way we are disagreeing,” Olikara said. He said different sides of the discussion should find a way so they do not see themselves as the enemy.

Huffstetler also asked what could be done to open up government to new ideas in the same way that private companies do to stimulate their growth. One necessary ingredient is data.

“We have finite resources and can’t throw money at every problem we have, so the use of data to allocate resources is key,” Stoney said.

Stoney said another issue is finding ways to get more entrepreneurs and innovators into local government.

Weidman Powers said the public must get more tolerant of mistakes in the public sector.

Other topics at the session included whether enough is being done to regulate and monitor the sale of data on social media websites and whether government should streamline permitting processes for tech companies.

Other panels at the Hometown Summit on Thursday included a look at the role universities play in entrepreneurial economies, how zoning can affect business needs and how cities can create “vital public art.”
 

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