Silos! Silos everywhere!  

People working in local government can be cagey when it comes to sharing information. But hiding information in silos means governments struggle to respond to communities' most complex problems.

When people are displaced or evicted from their homes due to pandemics or natural disasters, it takes serious behind-the-scenes coordination to connect them to available housing assistance. When bad landlords or developers fail inspection after inspection, it takes coordination across government agencies to make sure they’re not awarded subsidies or affordable housing contracts in the future. It’s a matter of common sense — when people face life’s challenges, they’re not just facing one challenge in one problem area. Access to housing, jobs, school, transportation, and environmental safety are linked, but our solutions to those challenges are not. 

Thanks to a widespread culture of secrecy-by-default in public service, departments in local governments struggle to work with one another. When intersectional issues come up in peoples’ lives, governments force people to categorize their problems by jurisdiction. Anyone who works with governments is familiar with government departments and their “silos.” Silos are social and cultural barriers that keep city departments from working together. They’re the issue I hear the most about when talking to government employees about the reasons they don’t collaborate.  

The tough truth is that most cities don’t tackle big, cross-cutting policy issues because working across departments or agencies just seems too hard. 

The culture of ownership and exclusivity in local governing has its roots in the early 20th century, when governing was a men’s game that happened within the confines of a “smoke-filled room.” But people running local governments today have to respond quickly to intersectional social and economic issues. They have to step outside of their comfort zone by bridging solutions across departments to effectively respond to peoples’ needs. It’s virtually guaranteed that every department in every city across the country could do better at collaborating with others. 

When they do step out out of their comfort zones and ask for feedback from communities, policy-makers want to hear feasible solutions. For example, many local government leaders have criticized communities’ demands to divest from policing and reinvest in communities because there aren’t clear pathways to meeting those demands. Meeting that demand would require police departments, health departments, housing departments, community development departments, regulatory departments, county and local traffic enforcement, and other agencies to work together to build a new system of care. It’s understandably a tall order. But local governments will say that silos are holding them back.

When cross-cutting policy initiatives fail, local governments can blame individual departments or agencies for blocking progress. “So-and-so doesn’t want to share.” Then, they try to approach the problem backwards. They think that if people had automated ways to share data, they’d start working together to solve some of communities’ bigger, stickier challenges. 

When governments buy technologies that advertise a one-shot solution to collaboration, they paper over cultural barriers that still lie underneath.

Government technologists who have tinkered with this approach can attest that tech-first solutions don’t work. Governments that attempt to share data across departments without building solid relationships for collaboration and transparency up front will hit roadblock after roadblock and wonder why their projects struggle. Governments have to build tech and data solutions by building rules and relationships that make sure data is used responsibly first. Good governance and person-to-person collaboration can improve how effectively data-sharing and data integration improve public programs and services. 

In the future, filling out one form for benefits through a government department might mean you’re automatically alerted about other benefit programs you’re eligible for; Good governance would ensure that your personal data is being protected  throughout that process. But if they’re not governed well, integrated data projects can expose people’s personal data to risk. Personal data that is linked across departments carries a fuller picture of a person’s life. Data can be leaked through weaknesses in cybersecurity, or public servants could use it in ways that individuals haven’t explicitly consented to. That way, we can ensure that governments don’t re-create the shameful state of data privacy that exists outside of government

So, how could it work? Getting people to collaborate and take the time to do it right often takes a directive from an executive like the mayor or a chief innovation officer. For example, the What Works Cities program requires a mayoral letter of support for cities to be admitted, and the State CDO Network’s Data Labs program requires a governor’s letter of support. Local governments are very hierarchical so leadership transitions and systems of centralized power can be enablers or blockers to the type of collaboration that would free up space for new ideas and innovation. 

But change can also happen from the bottom up. Public servants who work directly with communities, who serve people every day, can make the case for more inclusive practices. Public servants have the power to make sure that local governments involve people early and often in the design of new systems so that they have better rules and relationships to govern data in the future. 

I’ve seen that better collaboration inside local governments and stronger transparency initiatives go hand-in-hand. Good data governance and open data are two sides of the same coin. European cities like Amsterdam or Barcelona show us how cities can take civic participation seriously and build it into the foundations of their tech and data reforms. 

We should be able to demand intersectional solutions from our local governments that address the complex inequities in our lives. 

We can ask that those solutions start with openness and better, more responsible data-sharing. We can ask for departments to work better together, and after they’ve committed to transparency and good governance, we can design tech and data solutions together that can make it happen. We can look across cities, towns, and rural communities to find new models for collaboration and collective ownership in local government. And we can hope that our local public servants continue to ask hard questions and improve how they work.

Mariame Kaba opens her book, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, with a dedication to her father, Moussa Kaba, who taught her that “failures are always lessons and that everything worthwhile is done with others.” It’s similar to advice I hear a lot around local government folks, a proverb that challenges Western individualism, “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”  


If It’s Not Public, Does It Even Matter? - Great blog post by Sean Boots on the culture of information hoarding in public service through the lens of an insider. 

Who Owns the World? - A brief explainer by Stacco Troncoso of DisCOcoop on cooperative governance and how the status quo in tech affects our ability to conceive of non-hierarchical, collective technology reforms. 

“Now’s the Time to Include Cooperative Language in Your Bids and Contracts” - Mariel Reed of CoProcure on the opportunity to coordinate purchasing across governments emerging through the pandemic. 

Collaboration in Crisis: Responses to the Pandemic - A report-out from the Open Referral network by Greg Bloom on how local agencies and community providers are coordinating to deliver better human services during the pandemic. 

The Filing Cabinet - When you think about how local government data originated with the filing cabinet, it’s less surprising that people aren’t used to sharing. 

Now You Know: Where Was the Original Smoke-Filled Room? - A good old historical fact-check, probably also the first cited use of, “I guess they let anyone in here.” 

Special thanks to Tyler McBrien for editing this newsletter.