The Rockefeller Foundation started its 100 Resilient Cities program to help cities around the world become more resilient to social, economic and physical challenges – things like riots and earthquakes. But St. Louis’ inaugural chief resilience officer, Patrick R. Brown, admits that one of the city’s first problems he identified is “nothing earth-shattering.”
It’s the City of St. Louis’ information technology” (IT) infrastructure. “You can imagine how not-sophisticated it is,” Brown said, but it sounds worse than one might imagine.
Brown, 31, who previously was deputy chief of staff for Mayor Francis G. Slay and the city’s director of Intergovernmental Relations, should know. The city still uses a main frame computer, a dinosaur in terms of computer applications, and many departments still use the DOS operating system, which speaks the language of computer dinosaurs.
This makes for countless inefficiencies, but that is not what most disturbs Brown, as someone charged with upgrading the city’s resilience on a two-year grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation (like most major funders) is data-driven, and the city’s current level of IT sophistication makes it difficult to gather data about city functions and measure progress.
“We can’t and don’t track and measure our daily activities,” Brown said, “and a resilient city should.”
Brown has only been on the job a month and change, but he is already indoctrinated into the 100 Resilient Cities mindset. The Rockefeller Foundation has flown him into whirlwind training sessions in New York and Chicago, and provided him with what he described as a “playbook or manual” for resilience readiness. But one early play in the book is for him to help 100 Resilient Cities staff study the local context.
“They understand that you can’t be rigid and apply uniform standards,” Brown said. “They want to make sure they are fitting into a city’s context. So, I am basically doing a research paper on the city’s context as part of my first basic work.” That report is expected by January.
The city government’s archaic IT system is just one mundane factor in St. Louis’ resiliency context. Brown is well aware of the findings in “For The Sake of All” (2014) and the Ferguson Commission report (2015) that set forth litanies of racial inequities in the region that touch every facet of life, from health to income to home ownership rates to life expectancy. And the Rockefeller Foundation, he said, “wants to know everything” about these reports.
But updating outmoded computer systems should be easier to address, over two years of a grant-funded position, than centuries-old social crises. The 100 Resilient Cities program has what the foundation calls “platform partners,” such as Microsoft, that can be petitioned for in-kind contributions, such as IT system upgrades.
Even with such a relatively uncomplicated problem as archaic IT infrastructure, Brown knows, the city has been here before. The IBM Smarter Cities Challenge report on St. Louis, he pointed out, said that local government “needed to make better use of IT back in 2011. And we haven’t done it.” If IBM could not make St. Louis smarter, what should make anyone believe that the Rockefeller Foundation can make the city more resilient?
Brown realizes he faces a morale problem in trying to engage with a community that has often been engaged in dialogue about its problems, especially since Ferguson blew up in August 2014, but has seen scant change as a result. “We are a city of convened meetings,” Brown said, “and reports that sit on shelves.” He said he fears coming up with solutions, only to be told, “We already came up with that – nobody cared.”
A major problem in pressing for change is how unusually fragmented St. Louis government is. “In order to achieve a unified view of the individual,” the Smarter Cities Challenge report stated in 2011, “the extended team must work to establish a common language as information crosses institutional boundaries and improve data flow in individual agencies and across the system.”
It’s the “institutional boundaries” thing that slows down change here, as Brown has learned working in the mayor’s office. “Because of fragmentation of government” – with so many independently elected offices in the city – “we don’t just work with our own administration,” Brown said. “If we want to move the assessor off the main frame, that office is connected to the collector of revenue,” an independently elected position. “So we need the collector of revenue to move off the main frame.” Which the mayor is not empowered to make that official do.
“That’s why governance here is so hard,” Brown said. “You have to cajole and politic to do anything. And we’re not pushed to do things differently.”
He does, however, see one good sign, in terms of updating the city’s IT system. Even since the Smarter Cities Challenge report in 2011, the technology has become more portable and user-friendly. “The tools are far more accessible now,” Brown said, “and easier to use.”
Brown faces another unique challenge to his own position, in the fact that city government is about to change dramatically, given that Slay announced he will not seek reelection. In fact, the mayor made this announcement the day Rockefeller Foundation staff was in St. Louis to interview candidates for chief resilience officer.
“The guy who signed the city up for this program is getting out of government,” Brown said. “It’s a little murky.” If the new mayor were to cancel the 100 Resilient Cities contract, Brown said, then the city would be on the hook for everything the foundation has paid into St. Louis up to that point. If the new mayor wants to keep a chief resilience officer after two years, the city would have to fund the position.
So Brown’s position is precarious, but he has shown considerable personal resilience up until now.
He is the son of a single white mother, who worked at a restaurant, and an absent black father. The first time he spoke in depth with his father was the day before the man died last year. In terms of career, Brown went “from the mall to the mayor’s office” by leaving retail jobs to work on political campaigns while an undergraduate at Saint Louis University. He may have been raised in a white household, but cops and homeowners did not know that when he knocked on doors down south for Joan Barry in her failed 2008 bid for state Senate – or Mayor Slay for his successful reelection bid in 2009.
“A lot of people wouldn’t come to the door,” Brown said, “and cops wanted to know what I was doing.”
Now Brown has gone from the mall to the mayor’s office to the Rockefeller Foundation, and the new leg of the journey has been a heady one. For his orientation in New York, he was the only new chief resilience officer; newcomers are usually given a group orientation.
“I met their entire team. I was very intimidated,” Brown said. “There were all these brilliant people from five different continents – and me, St. Louis-born and -bred. But, it turned, out everybody was normal – and passionate.”