The 2015 fellows for the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation are bringing years of experience in tech, government and journalism to create a more connected Bay Area.
After years of working with Code for America to advocate for governments to use technology to deliver better, more efficient services, Ashley Meyers realized it was finally time for her to get involved in City Hall. She recognized that, in 2015, digitally-delivered services and interactions have become the norm. Except, of course, in government.
“We’re coming to expect our government to deliver public services digitally. As internet-age consumers, it now feels outdated and, frankly, frustrating to have to print out paper forms or wait in line at an office,” Meyers said. “Technology is going to enable us to govern more effectively when we can collect data in real time and redesign services quickly. In order to make that happen, we need great technologists to come work in government. If you want to work on issues like hunger, homelessness, income inequality, public art, environmental justice — government is the place to do it.”
Meyers isn’t new to the world of politics. She worked on a U.S. Senate campaign in Illinois, helped run a Congressional primary campaign in the California 2nd District, and interned at a Senate office in both D.C. and Washington.
And although she was inspired by the work going on around her, she felt distanced from the efforts that went into their political and policy campaigns and the real-life effects of that work. So after years of working in federal government, Meyers decided to go local.
“I love local government because it’s where the bulk of direct public service delivery happens,” Meyers said. “Cities can move faster and be more responsive than state or federal governments.”
In 2010, Meyers came out to San Francisco to work on a cross-sector public policy program and never looked back.
“The Bay Area culture, natural beauty and energy immediately felt like home,” she said.
Denise Cheng, on the other hand, is brand new to government. And before the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation fellowship, she’d never even considered working in politics.
Cheng was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa where she lived hours away from the other closest volunteers, with no electricity and spotty phone service. Cheng was quickly forced to adapt, not only to the culture of life in Africa, but also to the local language, Sesotho. She became familiar with the language before her service, but realized the fluency she learned from the books needed to shift and mold to a fluency she could only develop through conversations with locals.
“We each have a way of understanding the world, and we expect people around us to understand it in the same way,” Cheng said. “When you begin to work with people who are different from you, you realize that your own understanding is simply one brand of logic. If you want to do good, then you have to be able to put on other people’s glasses and take what they see as seriously as you take your own view.”
Cheng also has a background in journalism. She co-founded The Rapidian — a news source that became a national model for hyperlocal, citizen journalism — in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
She helped residents become more engaged in what was going on around the city and with issues that affected themselves, their families and their neighbors.
“New reporters would come to The Rapidian with a burning opinion and their minds made up, but our editorial policy required them to talk to sources,” Cheng said. “This attitude was common, and when new reporters returned, their minds had been changed. They were surprised by what they heard and abandoned the opinion piece for a more factually-based piece.”
Cheng believes that’s at the heart of civic media — going out into the community and engaging with the people and the issues affecting them, and turning that information into articles, videos, comics and even Mad Libs.
Cheng believes it’s the hands-on engagement that’s key for productive and positive civic innovation.
“By engaging, exploring and playing with information, media makers affect their networks in ways that we don’t even know how to detect,” Cheng said. “Everyone’s at the center of their own social network, and the impact on those they touch will show itself in different ways, at different times.”
After focusing for so long on local issues in Lesotho, Portland and Grand Rapids, Cheng realized that work at a city-scale has an unmatched impact. And now that she’s at the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, Cheng is focusing her energy on the future of work.
“As a society, we need to rethink what livelihood means, and whether our and our entire family’s well-being — personal health, financial health — should hinge solely on the jobs we can procure,” Cheng said. “I think a lot about the term ‘vulnerable populations,’ and how, in our frenzy to pull groups out of that vulnerability, we don’t often take preventative measures to keep other groups from falling in.”
While Cheng focuses on issues surrounding work, Meyers will focus her energy on creating a more tech-friendly government. She’s hoping to create a digital service that allows users to search and apply for affordable housing. She also plans on working toward applying more people-focused, speedy and responsive methodologies to city tech projects.
Although the fellowship is only a year long, both Cheng and Meyers are hopeful for the strides they can make in that time across a region as large the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I’ve described government as a living mass of relationships,” Cheng said. “It’s not searchable like Google, and it’s not discoverable like Instagram photos. To move great ideas forward requires tapping creatives and planners and people with intention who live across the city. It probably takes a while and a lot of finesse to lay out, but I’m excited to see what it looks like when individual parts start to move together.”