South Bend’s Mayor on What Local Governments Can Learn From Estonia

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., is seen at the Democratic National Committee Winter Meeting in Atlanta.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., is seen at the Democratic National Committee Winter Meeting in Atlanta. Alex Sanz/AP

The Indiana city’s new mobility-as-a-service pilot is helping low-income shift workers commute for free.

WASHINGTON — The mayor of South Bend, Indiana has been thinking about Estonia lately.

A former Soviet republic, the country of 1.3 million people is an almost completely digital society. The only things you can’t do online are get married or buy and sell real estate, said Pete Buttigieg, during the progressive network NewDEAL’s 2018 conference Friday in D.C.

In 2002, Estonia launched an electronic identification program backed by X-Road, a secure data exchange cardholders can use to consume services, and an online portal allowing citizens to review who holds their information and who has accessed it.

Given Estonia’s experience with authoritarianism, one might expect people to be reluctant to give their data to the government, but everything is backed up to blockchain and segregated. A hacker could access an ID number and driving record but couldn’t tie it to a specific person because the government never asks for the same piece of information twice, Buttigieg said.

“In the U.S., we are more comfortable handing it to an unaccountable private entity than to a government body in which we exercise democratic control,” he said, referring to data breaches at Facebook. “It’s just a different perspective over there—and I’m not saying the Estonian mentality will necessarily work for us—but it’s certainly evidence that these things can be done, perhaps especially at a state or local scale.”

As a young mayor of 36, Buttigieg has found his constituents expect him steer the mobilization of civic technologies for their benefit. He calls South Bend a “beta city” because it’s just big enough to field test disruptive technology in a complex environment but small enough to serve as a laboratory for experimentation.

South Bend was the first community to fully deploy Lime dockless bikes in July 2017.

The city’s latest civic tech endeavor is a mobility-as-a-service pilot targeting low-income shift workers who have trouble commuting. Bloomberg Philanthropies awarded South Bend $1 million in October as part of its U.S. Mayors Challenge with eight other cities, to fully subsidize the ride-hailing trips of employees at four local businesses.

While South Bend has a bus system, the city isn’t dense enough to have routes that run more frequently than once or twice an hour, Buttigieg told Route Fifty before his speech. The routes stop at dusk and don’t run at all on Sundays.

“We’ve gotten to the point where it’s less expensive to put someone in a rideshare in some cases than it is to ask them to navigate the city on a hub and spoke model with hours that don’t work for them,” Buttigieg said.

Sometimes employees depend on an “unreliable cousin with an unreliable vehicle” for rides, he added, which can cost them their job if they’re late and keep them in a “poverty trap,” where they can’t afford the car they need for work.

So far 83 percent of pilot participants have found they can work an extra hour on average a week, pick up more shifts and make more money. There are about 100 people in the program.

While not every city won the U.S. Mayors Challenge, Buttigieg recommends mayors and local leaders focus on the challenges in their communities first and then seek out the civic tech that can help alleviate them.

“Sometimes these technologies are really attractive,” Buttigieg said. “And they become a solution in search of a problem.”