#BensTake: 3 Things We Learned from Surveying Innovation in America’s Cities

#BensTake: 3 Things We Learned from Surveying Innovation in America’s Cities

Our inaugural Equipt to Innovate Survey offered insight into the state of municipal innovation across the country, and taught us a few lessons in the process.

Now more than ever, we are relying on cities to be our nation’s engines of innovation. In recent years, we’ve seen cities large and small emerge as shining examples of high-performing governance. Countless others are eager to follow in those footsteps. But despite the excitement and investment around municipal innovation that’s surged over the last decade, what’s still been lacking is clear, practical guidance to help cities bring innovation best practices to their own backyards.

This was our hypothesis when we developed the Equipt to Innovate framework, in partnership with Governing magazine in 2016. The framework sets out seven essential capacities, expressed as outcomes, which enable a city government to be high-performing and innovative: dynamically plannedbroadly partneredresident-involvedrace-informedsmartly resourcedemployee-engaged and data-driven. We believed that there was demand for someone to make sense of the many lessons being learned across the country, and systematize that information into a replicable roadmap.

But it was still just that: a hypothesis. To pressure-test the framework we built, we released the inaugural Equipt to Innovate Survey last year. The survey invited 300 of the largest cities in the country to evaluate their own performance across these seven elements. In addition to providing invaluable data on the state of municipal innovation across the country, the responses would reveal whether a hunger for order actually existed. In other words: if we built it, would people come?

In fact, we were thrilled by the response. Not only did we gain insight into the workings of city halls across the country, but the process itself also yielded three important insights for our work going forward:

  • The results validated the framework. Had we sent out the survey and been met with silence from the field, it would have been a pretty conclusive indication that our framework simply didn’t resonate with the people doing the work. But out of a pool of 321 invitees, 61 cities completed the self-assessment—a 19% response rate that, based on industry and academic standards, signaled to us cities’ strong interest in the elements we’d developed. In doing so, those leaders acknowledged that the outcomes set out in our framework were the goals that they were working toward in their own communities.
  • Places are using the framework as a new lens. We’re already beginning to see cities shifting their behavior in light of the framework. The common language and shared values captured in the framework can provide municipal governments with a structure around which to organize current work, and a rallying point to drive toward new goals. Following Governing magazine’s Summit on Innovation and Performance in May 2017, we heard from multiple cities that are planning to evaluate their own government operations internally through the Equipt frame.
  • Practitioners have a fierce commitment to continuous improvement. One can easily imagine that a self-administered survey would result in places giving themselves high marks, across the board. That simply was not the norm. Cities were brutally honest about their own performance; reflecting both a remarkable willingness to be vulnerable and a commitment to getting better. Nowhere was this clearer than around the capacity of “race-informed.” Seventy-seven percent of respondents, for example, indicated a need for more equitable provision of services—such as education, transportation and policing—across their cities.

We hope that the results of this survey, to be administered by Governing annually, will be an accelerant for the already-thriving municipal innovation field. By providing an actionable framework, more cities can join the growing network of high-performing governments and bring the benefits of a decade of innovation to their residents.


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