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The Path to Good Government: First Steps
Good government requires good citizenship, but getting engaged is surprisingly difficult. To move forward, we must build the onramp to good citizenship with social and technological infrastructure.
What does government look like? What are the main components? How do they fit together and operate to get things done? Most of us don’t know. But if we want our governing institutions to solve our problems then we need to know, especially since you and I choose who’s in charge of them.
I wrote previously that part of the reason we don’t know is because it’s hard to know; the world has gotten very complex very fast, and we don’t really have the tools to make sense of it. This applies to government. Imagine you are a citizen of San Francisco, fed up with the stagnation and decay. You resolve to figure out what’s going on so you can advocate for the policies and people who can turn things around. Where would you start? What do you need to know and where can you find it?
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404: Governance Not Found
I began by trying to understand the formal structure of the city government. Like any reasonable person, I started with Wikipedia.1 Lots of great information that meant nothing to me. Mayor, Board of Supervisors, Commissions and Departments and Boards, oh my. Without context, the long list of entities was more overwhelming than informative, so I looked for an organizational chart to get a visual feel for the overall structure. Harder than you might expect.
The Official City Website doesn’t even mention a city government org chart, but remnants of the old city website are still accessible which do mention it. I followed the link, and fittingly, arrived nowhere. The page had been deleted - 404: Governance Not Found. But perhaps it just got lost in the shuffle? A trip in the Wayback Machine revealed a 2019 archive of the site, and at last I arrived:
Indeed, an archived 2019 snapshot of an obsolete website with an incomplete JPEG from 2010 appears to be the state of the art in SF government legibility.2 This is why we don’t know about government and consequently why it’s hard to care. How can we possibly expect one of the most interesting clusters of civilization to flourish when the apparatus entrusted to govern it is functionally a black box powered by ancient JPEGs? Free society depends on the discerning choices of its citizens, yet there is no practical onramp to good citizenship.
Taking the First Step
So now what? Presently, the only way to understand the foundations of the government is by going directly to the source: The San Francisco City Charter. Approximately 370 pages of statutory law outlining the structure of the city government, supplemented by thousands of pages of additional code. Thus began a terrible and excellent adventure.
Reading the Charter, the Administrative Code, and various other bodies of law is both monotonous and empowering. As I read, the names I recognized gained clarity and fell into place along with the new names I uncovered. I logged this information in a knowledgebase along the way. I’ve now identified more than 125 entities and have more yet to catalog.
An exciting accumulation of knowledge for sure, but hard to extract any insights. I decided to add some structure and right the wrong that helped spark this whole journey. The first step on the path to good citizenship for me, and the first deliverable for the Civ Lab, is nothing more than the humble org chart I needed when I first began:
This organizational chart captures the full set of local elected officials and a set of particularly influential entities they appoint. My intention was to map how authority is distributed through the most interesting and important parts of the city government. It reflects what I’ve learned so far but was also a learning experience in itself.
Creating the org chart highlighted the difficulty of clearly conveying complexity. It’s impossible to tell the full story of our governmental structure in a single 2D page. I couldn’t list all 120+ entities because it’s overwhelming. For instance, the Mayor includes the Office of the Mayor, and the Office of the Mayor is actually multiple offices. I hand selected entities which I identified to have meaningful authority but, of course, this is subject to my interpretation. Even within the subset chosen, I had to omit the appointing relationships for shared entities lest we end up with arrow spaghetti. And even if we could fully show the formal power structures, it doesn’t convey the informal power structures dictated by the humans represented by these boxes. So while the org chart is a good place to start, it can only be the first step.
Walking the Path
Then how do we get beyond this first step and move further down the path toward good citizenship and eventually good governance? Ideally, every citizen would read the Charter and associated codes. You’re smart, what’s stopping you? While it’s hard to imagine that your job or family could feel more important than reading thousands of pages of legal code, it is admittedly a heavy lift. So if we want more people to walk the path, we must build the onramps to good citizenship. This requires two kinds of infrastructure: social and technological. We’ll have much to say about the social infrastructure3, but for now we’re building out the technology. The org chart here is a hard-won but simple first example of this. Up next, we’ll release a tool to make the knowledgebase accessible as we work toward the previously mentioned systems model of the city government. As we continue to build, remember that civilization could be excellent.
My research suggests that Wikipedia is wrong. As an example, the airport is under the jurisdiction of the Airport Commission which is appointed exclusively by the mayor, but is listed under the City Administrator. Amusingly, this appears to be based on a misinterpretation of an ancient org chart JPEG prior to it being deleted.