Grassroots Civic Innovation - What City Council could do to realize the transformative value of the Mayor's Innovation Fund

(With a dedicated civil service and a City Innovation Fund, what's to stop civic innovation in Los Angeles?)

A half million change agents

A half million plus LAUSD students will finish an Hour of Code today, the last day of Computer Science Education Week*. Our schools are introducing an entire generation of Angelenos to computer programming. Some of these students will recall this week opened the door to a career in creating world-changing digital and robotic innovations. All of them will argue whether it was when the end of work (as their parents knew it) began.

The Mayor's Innovation Fund

The transformation of work will proceed by one person in every type of work combing a systemic understanding of their work routines, a will to learn the requisite programming, and a sincere wish for humans to only do things machines can't. It is orders of magnitude more likely to start when an entire generation can imagine developing a computer application. Maybe, it could happen sooner in city operations thanks to programs like Mayor Garcetti's Innovation Fund - who knows, right?

Why it's not enough

Irrespective the Mayor's support for grassroots city employee innovation, the economic premise of city employment severely limits the impact of his Innovation Fund. In a strictly wage context, a computer application that completely reduces the burden on a department, also renders the department unnecessary and the employees expendable. A less than complete un-burdening is a grey state of precarious under-employment. There is no appeal to glory in the arena of workplace transformation when playing to win means giving up all your livelihood. The presumption of wages naturally limits grassroots innovation to the incremental and the periphery. Worse than something going wrong, nothing meaningful will happen at all.

The bad news

So instead of the smooth transition envisioned when employees themselves do the transformaiton, the transformation will be done to them and it will be ugly. The lure of greater efficiency will draw in an army of change consultants to substitute software, sweeping away public workers in a wave of monopolistic techno-managerial disruption, just as they introduced robots to factory floors a generation ago. The off-chance an employee naïvely does automate their own job in good faith, their Innovation Award in some cases will come attached to a pink slip. Or they can hide it for personal benefit. The role of government as a secure employer cannot withstand the pursuit of full operational efficiency, if only because it must contend with lawyer robot armies capable of overloading humans with busy work.

The missing piece

Can we make sure grassroots innovators control their inventions and their destinies? Can we compel the government to capture the creative capacity of employees un-burdened by routine work? Yes we can, by creating a platform that captures the entire creative surplus of a city employee automating themselves out of a job. 

The good news

City Council can unlock the potential of the Mayor's Innovation Fund in 2015. There are many ways to avoid the private takeover of goverment and spur a wave of city employees self automating their jobs. We can encourage existing creative employees and recruit new ones to overcomet the bureaucratic hurdles and isolation of championing hyper-productivity initiatives. It only takes one city ordinance to bootstrap the platform. Once this ordinance is in place, Angelenos can start immediately setting a national example for a smoother transition to a post-work society.

A platform for grassroots civic innovation

The platform needs to do one thing - release public sector employees from wages to the extent they automate their job - and we can create it with an ordinance to simply guarantee employee ownership of any way they create to automate their own job. With this protection an employee could enter a good faith negotiation to proactively end the need for their role without fear of downsizing themselves. Employee associations and unions can resolve internally how to share the proceeds from the sale of an employee created productivity innovation. The government will pursue the creative evolution of the public workforce because there will be little value in shrinking it and free the city employee to serve the public at ever deeper levels of meaning.

* Computer Science Education Week is a project of, a non-profit founded by my friends and former co-founders Ali & Hadi Partovi.

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