One of my favorite examples of innovative governance is a New Orleans entrepreneur, Sydney Torres, creating ‘Uber’ for the police in 2015. Frustrated with rising crime and slow police response times, he made an app, hired off duty police officers, and gave them golf carts. With effective management of the taskforce, he was able to substantially cut down response times to crime. Despite its radical nature, the New York Times was largely sympathetic to Torres and the taskforce.
Less than one year later, the program was off track. While the app and the golf carts remained, Torres was out, and the officers were being directly managed by the relevant police district. The result, despite the same technology, was a regression to the mean.
Torres was known to bird-dog his squad and gripe loudly when he found officers slacking off. He was paying them $50 an hour at the time and expected his money’s worth. Simms said he leaves it mostly to the NOPD to discipline their own. He said he’ll boot officers from the program only if they twice fail to show up for a shift without calling.
“You have to recognize — Sidney, myself, anybody — these police officers do not take direction from us. My job is not to supervise the officers. These officers are taking their direction from the NOPD 8th District sergeant,” Simms said.
Torres soon bought his way back into the arrangement with a $100,000 ‘donation’ to buy 3 new souped up golf carts and update the app. In exchange for the support, Torres can track the GPS, though he promises to keep interference to a minimum. In 2018, two years after Torres rejoined management, and three years after launch of the taskforce, the number of armed robberies in the French Quarter had fallen by half.
The 2020 New Orleans Police Department budget was just under $200 million. The articles I found suggest Torres donated $400,000 total to the program. By 2018, a French Quarter hotel tax was contributing $1.2 million annually to the taskforce. With a small initial grant, some elbow grease and creative thinking, and <$.6% of the annual Police Department budget, New Orleans cut armed robbery by half in their most important tourist district.
This is illustrative of a larger problem: governance is not just laws, but also administration. Torres changed no laws; he just took an entrepreneurial mindset to solving a problem typically reserved for the government. By applying his talents, as well as stepping outside the traditional bureaucracy which would have frustrated them, he was able to create a quality of life improvement for residents and visitors to New Orleans, as well as increase their tourism revenue.
Such reform is difficult in companies, even more so in governments. For every Microsoft that’s able to reinvent itself, there’s an IBM that slowly fades into irrelevance. Companies, at least, have direct competitive pressure that encourages them to improve or allows them to be replaced. Governments do not face such pressure.
The result is less “government for the people” and more “government for the bureaucracy.” The unwillingness or inability to apply standard management pressure on employees leads to overpriced and underserviced municipalities. The upside is that when creative solutions are found, service provisions can improve quicker than anyone would otherwise expect.