#BensTake: Can Local Government Innovation Stick?

#BensTake: Can Local Government Innovation Stick?

From the work of the City Accelerator’s first cohort, Living Cities CEO, Ben Hecht, outlines three trends that he sees as critical to making innovation stick in local government.

One of the most exciting movements happening in the U.S. is around municipal innovation. Over the past ten years, there has been remarkable growth in the number of cities adopting new ways of working to solve long standing challenges. Cities, large and small, are creating innovation offices, like the Offices of New Urban Mechanics in Boston and Philadelphia; forming Innovation Teams, often spurred by support from Bloomberg Philanthropies; applying in large numbers for innovation prizes; and making municipal data available in ways that allow city residents to participate more creatively and actively in solving top-of-mind problems.

With the burst of experimentation and activity in municipal innovation, we found ourselves asking: “Can it stick?” Can the energy and novelty of these new approaches survive a change in mayoral administration? If so, what can we learn about how these approaches were able to shift a culture in government that can often seem to have its own center of gravity?

Last year, we launched the City Accelerator’s first Cohort, in partnership with the Citi Foundation and Cohort Lead, Nigel Jacob, from Boston’ Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, to answer that question. We began working with three cities – Louisville, Nashville and Philadelphia – who had adopted robust innovation agendas, including two who would change mayoral terms in mid-cohort, to understand what it takes to make innovation “course of business.”

In December, we brought the three cities together to share their work and help us all make meaning of what has been learned. While we have evaluators who will be issuing a more formal set of findings, I was struck by three things that I believe are critical to making innovation stick in the complex and political worlds that are cities:

Build A System

In many ways, Louisville proved out the adage, ”from many, one.” They had a number of different approaches to innovation which sat in different places, related but largely disconnected. Through the City Accelerator, they’ve built a sophisticated infrastructure for soliciting and vetting innovative ideas, with a pipeline of more than 50 projects from across multiple agencies, and a staff of 14 that is not only working inside government but now beginning to look outward into the community, and invite external stakeholders to propose innovative ideas and projects that align with the city’s strategic plan. They helped people see innovation as more than a series of isolated transactions and brought a discipline and rigor to how change happens, so it can happen over and over again.

Create a Staff Culture of Innovation

Much of Nashville’s work focused on the individual government employee role in innovation. Their work revealed that many government employees hold great, potentially innovative ideas in their heads, but rarely have the space and time to think and process these ideas. Nashville has made great strides in changing the culture of city government, fostering an environment where every employee is given the agency and cover to bring new ideas to the table, and is allowed to fail, if that’s where the innovation leads. It’s a very different and powerful concept. Five months into the new mayor – a former council member’s – term, , there are very promising signs that this culture, and the mechanisms in place to make it stick, will be critical elements of the future. There is a fabulous slide that Louisville uses to help their employees understand their work and where innovation fits overall. I find the concept critical to helping to create that staff culture of innovation.

Bake Innovation into Individual Departments

The City of Brotherly Love is focusing on improving how one department better serves low-income residents. Already, the Philadelphia Department of Revenue has shown the value of employing various outside-the-box approaches, like nudges, to drive a specific outcome – in this case, to increase benefits enrollment by any innovative means necessary. Successful experiments are rapidly prototyped across all of their work. A dedicated, cross-functional team inside the city department is instituting the principles of lean or agile development by engaging staff at all levels in the department. Encouragingly, the new mayor has selected a big advocate for this approach from the former administration to be his new Managing Director.

In many ways, our City Accelerator sites have collectively sketched a blueprint for making innovation the regular course of a local government’s business: systematize, empower staff and intentionally embed it in critical departments. We know that the work of municipal innovation is easier said than done. But with so many local leaders committed to working differently, we really may be on the cusp of something revolutionary in cities across the nation.


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