4 Key Challenges Facing Local Government Innovators

By Nigel Jacob • November 20, 2014

This post originally appeared on the City Accelerator blog on Governing.com. It was written by Nigel Jacob, the urban technologist-in-residence at Living Cities.

On September 4th, the Citi Foundation and Living Cities concluded a six-month selection process for the City Accelerator’s first cohort on embedding innovation in local government, selecting Louisville, Ky., Nashville, Tenn., and Philadelphia, Pa.

Our decisions were informed by the truly extraordinary public feedback we received on the cities’ applications.The judging process roughly mimicked the process of a technology incubator: The finalists recorded five-minute video pitches that were assessed on both the potential impact of the project, as well as the sense that the city teams would be able to use the resources of the City Accelerator to move their work forward. In fact, the six final pitches were of such consistently high quality that the question of where we felt we could add the most value became a deciding factor for us – and even then picking three was really hard. We would love to have brought in all six.

The selection process surfaced four key tensions that our outstanding finalists, and many other cities, are struggling with in the work to make innovation course-of-business.

1. Balancing incremental improvement and “disruptive” or “transformative” approaches to innovation

Incremental innovation is important to help cities improve the things they’re already doing. However, as Peter Drucker would say, leadership is not just about doing things right, but also about doing the right things. A robust innovation practice employs a range of tools, such as human-centered design and partnerships with outside entities, to help cities constantly challenge, rethink and refine what they’re doing and why.

Incremental innovation is important to help cities improve the things they’re already doing.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer talks all the time about breakthrough innovation as one of the core duties of local government, right alongside day-to-day work and continuous improvement. But cities struggle with how to organize, staff, resource and support these activities so they can happen in tandem.The cities we selected are eager to work through this challenge – both in their programs and in the way their organizations work, so that innovation is possible again and again.

2. Putting city residents at the center in a bureaucratic environment

The cohort cities are hungry to better meet city residents’ needs, and to improve city residents’ experience of their local governments. However, doing this within a government bureaucracy can be really hard. Fortunately, there is prior art in the tech sector from which cities can steal. Relevant techniques include human-centered design (see, for example, IDEO’s toolkit), user experience, and new methods for collecting data on usage and quality of experience. Philadelphia’s work with the City Accelerator, for example, will explore “user-centered” approaches to helping low-income people access taxpayer benefits for which they are eligible.

3. Nurturing innovation in city departments

Innovation practices often live within one part of government or another, usually the mayor’s office but sometimes a standalone department or an IT office. The cohort cities are looking for ways to ensure their innovation practice can function across departments and up and down chains of command. Nashville, for example, has developed an Ideas to Reality program that trains local innovators across city departments. This issue is, in my opinion, a key frontier for the field, and will be an important focus of our work in the coming months.

4. Developing and structuring innovation partnerships

The cohort cities are eager to engage partners outside of government in the work of innovation. How best to do that, however, is not at all obvious. It can be difficult to identify good partners and right-size their roles, and there’s a danger of letting innovation partnerships become a distraction from the city’s own innovation practice. Moreover, how to staff and resource partnerships on the city side can be daunting. The Accelerator cities are each trying to figure out how best to frame, organize and approach partnerships with outside entities in support of their work.

There’s a danger of letting innovation partnerships become a distraction from the city’s own innovation practice.

Much of our work in the coming months will be focused on these issues. They’re certainly not the only issues that are important to innovation. Rather, they are the places where we feel we are well-positioned to provide support. Accordingly, we picked places that articulated the greatest interest in tackling these tensions with support and partnership from the City Accelerator. All of these cities are at the forefront of municipal innovation, and we look forward to celebrating the triumphs of all six in the months ahead.

About the Author

Nigel Jacob

Nigel Jacob is the co-director of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston.