Drones? Connectivity as a civil right? Government competing with AWS? Everything was on the table when Startup Policy Lab held our first Policy Series fireside chat with Miguel Gamino, CIO of San Francisco at Bloomberg BETA. We covered a lot of ground. But the most important takeaways might be the need to go back to basics and figure out a way for tech and government to talk to each other.

Our conversation with CIO Gamino covered a lot of ground. But here are the three top-level takeaways:

· San Francisco’s municipal broadband network is expanding albeit slowly

· The City’s ban on drones is in place for the foreseeable future; and,

· The City is introducing a software defined network to the municipal IT infrastructure creating a unique opportunity to become the SDN Platform of choice for the Bay Area

For those looking for more nuance and insight about ways to bridge technology and government — read on!

1. Language is Critical.

When the CIO of San Francisco openly discusses the difficulty in explaining technology to elected officials, i.e. his boss, it’s clear it’s a challenge. Successfully communicating with policymakers and elected officials means technology has to be translated into frameworks elected officials understand. We have to speak their language.

Questions from the audience helped provide some specific approaches. First, speak in terms of business (not technical) systems. For government officials, this means,

  • Talk about how technology impacts government operations in the scope of delivering services to citizens.
  • And when speaking to policymakers, think about how safety might be impacted, provide a solution, and you’ll get a lot farther in the conversation. Recognize that a key touch point for government officials is public safety which is why they tend to be conservative. For example, drones aren’t dangerous until someone uses them to stalk people or flies them near 747s at an an airport.

2. Public feedback does matter…sort of.

One issue that came up — and frankly wasn’t well resolved — was the need for more tangible points of interaction between citizens and government. The CIO made it clear that hearing from the public does in fact matter, specifically when the public provides use cases. The challenge is actually providing that feedback in a constructive way.

Unfortunately there is no formal method of conveying feedback. And while there are a lot of tools available that try to increase public engagement, none of these tools provide sentiment analysis of ongoing services (whether a service is good or bad). For example, the CIO mentioned setting up a search on his Twitter account to track public comments about specific services, e.g. SF Wifi. That’s a great idea, but not terribly scalable.

3. Cities are (actually) great places for innovation.

Working with the Feds is sexy. There’s DARPA, NASA, CDC, and others, and they all have a lot of money. But the Feds are distant and don’t usually deal with everyday issues that individuals face, like municipal transportation. So while cities might lack the financial resources or scope of the Feds, they offer other exciting opportunities about how to make life easier and simpler, idea that are near and dear to the world of startups and innovation.

This was very clear when the CIO talked about expanding municipal broadband and developing the City’s software defined networking platform. For startups and civic hackers, this is incredibly exciting — the City will soon be in a position to potentially challenge traditional ISPs (aka Team Cable) and possibly data centers (think AWS). If City IT services become a “utility” as the CIO wants, connectivity and innovation may become part and parcel of the City of San Francisco, for everyone. Just like the electric grid.

What’s it all mean?

The City is launching some aggressive and large-scale initiatives. For example, making connectivity a regulated utility is just as much about access and social impact as it is economic factors. These types of initiatives are a good reminder that innovation in the public service sector serves a different purpose than the private sector. But for those trying to work with the city on drones, connectivity, and more, remember: language matters, think hard about public safety, and start local.

You can find Charles on Twitter @CharlesBelle and find Startup Policy Lab @StartupPolicy.

Join us for our next Policy Series, with featured speaker Travis LeBlanc, the Chief of the Bureau of Enforcement at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). We’re talking net neutrality, mobile payments, and more. Seat are limited- Get your ticket!.

To hear about our events and activities first, sign up for our Newsletter, This Week in Startup Policy. It has all the latest news and happenings at the intersection of tech and policy. Also, it’s kinda funny, we think you’ll like it.