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How digital innovation meets people in the city of Ithaca

Adventures of a digital man in America is a column where Peeter Vihma, an Estonian sociologist, filmmaker and author, currently a Fulbright Fellow at Cornell University, NY, is bringing you his personal monthly reports into the American digital economy, government and society.

Cornell University, where I carry out my fellowship is situated in Ithaca, NY. It is a small city (pop 30 000) known for its hippie vibe, but also known for its progressive and innovative spirit. In order to find out what is the state of e-governance in the city there is no better person to talk to but Julie Holcomb. City Clerk for the last 30 years, known also as a “gatekeeper” to the city and “a living Ithaca legend” she is a fifth generation city employee.

“My father was the mayor in the 1970s and the family’s connection to the city goes back until early 1900s when one of my ancestors was a Police Commissioner of Ithaca,” Julie reveals. “When my father couldn’t find us a babysitter I would sit in the Council meetings,” she says. “So you could say that I have grown up in this building.”

I meet her in the City Clerk’s office downtown Ithaca. The counter behind which she runs her department, is the first and often the only contact point for the citizens of Ithaca. People come here for various licenses (like for holding a public event or getting married) and for getting public information. Exactly the type of activities that in Estonia are almost entirely digitalized.

Generation change

“A lot has changed over the years when I have worked for the city,” says Julie. “Both in the physical infrastructure of the city, and in the digital one.” We start talking about how her father turned a part of a busy street into a pedestrian area now known as the Commons, but soon we are discussing various ways in which Ithaca has used digitalisation to both be engaged with the community and make its inner operations smoother.

“I think there is a generation change going on,” Julie concludes. “We live in a community where the median age is 22 because of the university. All the young generation is extremely tech-savvy. But the municipality average employee age is 45 or even higher. These are bright people with very high skills in their areas of expertise, but not always so comfortable with technology. It is my job to come up with hybrid solutions that would make everybody happy.”

According to Julie, this balancing act should work in two ways. On the one hand, interaction systems should cater to both the young generation who find digital notification very useful, but also to the older generation who still come to the counter to get information. This is slowly changing, Julie explains. “When they come in with a parking ticket because they didn’t get the notice that a street was being cleaned they see that they really need to get signed up,” says Julie.

On the other hand, digitalisation also has to consider the skill level and work flow of the city employees. Answering Freedom of Information requests is one of the examples that Julie brings. “Before a person needed to fill in a form, the clerk then sent a copy of it via inter-office mailbox to another building, who got them the next day, they had to search it from their records and could take couple of days to get back…. You get the picture. Now with the automated digital workflow people just have to click the right boxes on the screen. We have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars for the tax-payer.”

“But for this, everyone has to bring up skills. When we now hire people such as police officers or public works engineers we have to ask them how comfortable are they with computers. This has become an integral part of their work.”

“As my generation starts aging out of the work force this problem will take care of itself,” Julie laughs.

Hybrid solutions between digital and personal

Throughout our talk I am amazed about the level of responsibility and commitment to the community Julie displays. This is a lens through which she sees all aspects of innovation. “We have an active community. So when problems arise people flood our meetings and they are not shy. So we are creating a good dialogue. People in this community don’t like to be said no, and people in this building don’t like to be said no,” she elaborates. “So in terms of innovation top down and bottom up needs to meet.”

“Although I do have a mug that says “Because I said so” this is not a dictatorship,” Julie laughs. “We are bringing people in when we design services. And then we allow people to critique.”

To be honest, the mixture of digitalisation and person-to-person approach appeals to me. I especially realised this when Julie explained the system for public events licenses (something that, again, has been fully digitalized in Estonian municipalities).

“We have a digital application management system which gives notice to different departments who are able to react through the system. So for small scale events we can give an OK online. But with bigger events we want to meet the organizers face to face with our special events team. I want them to come in and talk to them to see if they really know what they are doing. Especially now that the world has changed. For example do you have an active shooter plan, a plan for a bomb… it takes a lot of planning. On paper things may look good but when you start talking to them it can completely fall apart.”

“The same thing is with the general public. As much as they want to conduct business 24/7 at home in their pajamas, there is still a large population who, when you pick up the phone and say “City Clerk’s office, this is Julie” respond “Oh, thank God I got a person!”

“So I don’t have the fear that AI is going to take our jobs. There is a desire for personal interaction. Especially when you are in crisis you want to talk to a person who knows what you’re talking about,” Julie is confident.

Bottom-up innovation

One of the topics we discussed was the difference between Estonia as a small country where most of innovation happens at the top and then is applied on lower levels, and US, where the innovation is in many cases much more bottom-up. “We don’t have a lot of choices,” was Julie’s reaction. “In the US, a lot more local municipalities are taking innovative action because the federal government is not, or, in fact, reversing some progress that we have made in years past,” Julie explains the situation. “So everything happens on the local level first. We have to do what we can, and through this we are able to educate others. Be it the matter of environment or other services.”

What will the future be like in 5 years, I asked Julie.

“Seamless” – was the word she used.

“I would like to break the barriers of information in the organization. I would like all departments understand the value of public information, and the value of sharing this information with other people. Maybe blockchain technology will help us to do that but that will probably take more than five years.”

“This sounds corny, but it can be like a family. I want that with technology and tools people feel they belong here and want to raise their family in Ithaca and feel safe to have their parents here… I hope that Ithaca is as special for the people as it is for me.”

I left Julie with assurance that digital innovation in Ithaca is in good hands.

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