Mike Sarasti: We’re going to burn up Miami’s website ‘like a ritual fire’

We’re going to be spending this month making the city’s movers and shakers nail down some resolutions and predictions for their work in 2017. This week we’re talking local governance.

Mike Sarasti became the chief innovation officer for City of Miami in May. He’s the first one to hold a position like that in South Florida, and he’s trying to totally transform the way local government looks at tech. NBD. We’ve lightly edited this interview for clarity and length.

So the City of Miami now has a person who’s whole job is to innovate. What’s in store?

The last four or five months,  I’ve been doing a full review of the building and permitting process. I’ve also been doing design thinking exercises to bring people in from the public and we realized, “Hey, we can use these principles within all aspects of city government. We can even do this in a very analog process that will reveal things… in one of these design thinking exercises, the solution as as simple as “Why don’t we set up an information desk?” They were able to do that within a week.

We can do some quick wins, bring a little bit of that startup mindset to government. We’re doing an electronic plan review. We’re figuring out how we can loop in some of the local vendors who are doing work around that already.

There’s an open data portal for the city coming soon.

We’re also going to launch a new website for the city with a real service-oriented focus. We’re going to burn up the current website like a ritual fire… flip it on its head. We’ll pick what the top services are and put those out there. We’ll release the alpha in January with six or seven services to show people what’s possible. Editor’s note: That alpha launched on Jan. 5. They’re working on the site out in the open at alpha.miamigov.com, so go ahead – kick the tires and give them some feedback.

It’s going to be nice and simple and modern and get people here locally excited about what we can do.

It’s going to get easier for local tech companies to get hired for government work.

One of the biggest surprises was a very forward-thinking, innovative procurement director and procurement department, so that has really put the focus on what might be possible in rethinking procurement (Editor’s note: That’s what it’s called when the government hires private companies to take on government work, like construction or garbage collection… or building a website) to make it more accessible for smaller local tech companies to compete for government work. We’re looking at requirements we have now and trying to make this a little more reasonable.

A lot of the time, the attitude for procurement is, “Let’s put every requirement under the sun in the RFP and put this out to bid. But if you simplify the RFP, if you can chop up the project, you might be able to attract local talent. (Editor’s note: An RFP is a request for proposals, it’s how an agency asks another companies to submit a business proposal to bid on a project.) The only people who can compete on all 100 requirements are the big boys: IBM, Oracle.

I don’t want to have to hire a full-time person for a year.  If I’ve got a month of work, can I bid that out potentially and have five smaller local companies bid on that? Then I think you can have some real growth in civic tech locally.

About that website…

I think the website is going to be a huge vehicle for that. We’re looking at it as a real opportunity… we’re going to take a look at each individual process to make sure it’s user friendly.

We’re reducing the grade level on the reading of things so that you don’t have to have a college degree to figure out how to build a fence, for example. 

We also want to keep people from having to come into the building. Right now there’s no way around it, you have to come to the administrative building for anything building and permitting related. Why, if you’re a small business owner working out of your house… why you would have to come into this building to do that?”

People are finally understanding tech.

Government really does tend to exist in a vacuum. Employees don’t get the opportunity that often to step outside city hall and see what happens at a CIC Miami or go to The Lab and see cool technology.

They just haven’t been given the opportunity or seen or known these things are happening within the community. But at the national day of civic hacking, more people than ever showed up for county.

I see people getting interested in all these modern approaches to building things. In their personal lives, city employees are exposed to great apps and user experiences. The tech component is a big mystery for a lot of folks. They still view tech as three to five-year implementations. The idea that there are things that can get done in months is very foreign to government.

But with the website, it’s been less than 12 weeks and we’ve been able to redesign six or seven services. We’ve done user testing and we’re going to be able to launch something here really quickly. That starts to change the perception of what an IT project takes.