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CityCamp Oakland: Forging Partnerships, Gaining Trust

Published:  December 19, 2012

By Nicole Neditch

Nicole Neditch works in the Office of the City Administrator for the City of Oakland. In this capacity, she is leading a partnership with the CCIP and the City of Oakland to establish a CityLab.

On Saturday, December 1, approximately 120 people, including techies, City of Oakland staff, bloggers and community members, gathered at Oakland City Hall for the first CityCamp “Unconference” to think about how technology can shape the future of Oakland.

CityCamp was organized by OpenOakland, a Code for America Brigade made up of volunteers committed to deploying digital tools that make government more open, accessible and transparent. The Brigade partnered with the City to host impromptu sessions that the participants themselves proposed online through engageoakland.com, and then voted on the day of the event. Sessions on transparency and open data, civic engagement, youth and bridging the digital divide had significant interest. In some cases, there was a clear facilitator, and in others, participants took charge to lead the sessions that they were interested in.

It was incredible to see these communities come together and learn from one another. The event served as a constructive effort to work together to come up with new ideas that will have a lasting impact on our community. By working together, we were able to forge new partnerships, develop smarter citizenship and increase the trust that our community has in its government.

Technology and the User Experience

Having worked for city government for a few years now, I truly believe that the majority of Oakland City staff work incredibly hard every day to deliver the best service possible. However, scarce resources and dated, bureaucratic processes can lead to a frustrating user experience. As new laws and policies are passed to ensure oversight, participation and fairness, they are added on top of layers of already complex processes. Coming up with streamlined solutions is difficult because there are so many variables at play.

Recent positive momentum has centered on creating a better government through hack-a-thons to create civic apps, and national programs like the Code for America fellowship that connects cities with web industry talent. But deploying new technology has to start with the user experience. We need to identify the pain-points in the relationships that people have with our City, create a better process and get buy-in from City staff.

We first need to deconstruct existing processes and then redesign them from the ground up. To do this, we need to engage staff at every organizational level, and the community in the design process. By tapping the collective intelligence of both City staff and the community it serves, different perspectives will be heard and teams will come up with new ideas, unexpected solutions and more tailored outcomes.

Relationships are Key

Before I worked for the City of Oakland, I was a small business owner. I owned a coffee shop and an art gallery in what is now “Uptown Oakland”. In the beginning, I was frustrated by how difficult it was to navigate the complexities of starting a new business. And, after I got it going, I often had moments where I didn’t feel that my City was doing enough to support me. I found myself complaining endlessly about parking enforcement, blight, and how long it took for the Oakland Police Department to respond when I called about a broken window or public safety issue. I thought that my City could do better by me and my neighbors. But having an impact on City government seemed so far out of reach.

Wanting to make a difference, I started attending public meetings, voicing my concerns and building relationships with people in my community. I joined coalitions dedicated to keeping dollars local, preserving arts funding and promoting small businesses. I sat on the Cultural Affairs Commission, so that I could have a direct impact on City government and its relationship to the arts. And, ultimately, I forged partnerships with City staff who have provided countless hours of support and mentorship to me.

These partnerships produced many successful initiatives. I have been a witness, time and time again, to the impact that citizens and community groups can have on our City and how much more these citizens and groups can leverage with strong City support and through innovative public-private partnerships.

Through a fortunate turn of events, I started working for the City of Oakland. I took the job because of the incredible people that I had the chance to work with. My colleagues are people, who are just as passionate about making Oakland a better and more sustainable place to live, work and play as I am.

Let’s Work Together

Public-private partnerships, civic participation and community engagement are the key to creating a healthy city. While citizens can volunteer to adopt City infrastructure or speak at a City Council meeting, these opportunities only appeal to a limited audience. We need to create diversified opportunities for people to engage, as citizens demand a more participatory government.

By talking openly with City staff, citizens gain a level of trust for the work that is being done by local government. With exposure to the complexities of government, citizens have a better understanding of the limitations and possibilities.

CityCamp was a great first step in the right direction. We opened our doors and talked and listened to techies and civic-minded individuals in a positive and constructive way. As a City employee, but also as a resident of Oakland, I look forward to continuing this conversation and seeing the tangible successes of this endeavor emerge.

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