Twenty-four-hour news coverage and citizen demand for immediate solutions consume most of the time and attention of local-government officials. Yet despite these pressures, the best city leaders still carve out the time to take the risks necessary to make their governments run better, faster and cheaper.
That said, short of catastrophe animating the public's passions, how do cities create the urgency and political will to devote scarce resources to the largely intangible endeavor of creating a long-term innovation pipeline? What levers do cities like Boston, Louisville, New York and San Francisco deploy that result in a culture that produces a string of innovations?
Data is particularly important for holding providers and programs accountable for results — and for finding far more efficient and cost-effective ways to deliver public services.
In my experience, two principles guide these cities. First, social change is an issue of governance, not just government, so any approach that does not span the entire community, from business to activists to philanthropic foundations, will have limited effect. Second, because the leaders of these cities invest in creating vibrant systems ripe for innovation, they expect innovation in return. A new series of papers from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation adds research to this insight.
Authors Gigi Georges, Tim Glynn Burke and Andrea McGrath propose that innovative jurisdictions focus on improving what they call the local innovation landscape — "the civic, institutional, and political building blocks critical to innovation in solving public problems." Organized around three chief strategies, the authors suggest practical action steps — harvested through years of studying the country's leading thinkers and practitioners in social innovation — with local government in mind.
Focusing first on building the collective capacity to innovate, the authors begin with a call for better collaboration among existing efforts of various agencies and sectors. Equally important, cities need to cast a wide net to identify aspiring innovators and their novel ideas, not just from within government but from across the community. Innovators with the greatest potential, in turn, often require networking, mentoring, logistical, technical, financial and other operational support.
Boston's Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, for example, actively seeks ideas for bolstering civic engagement not only from the front lines of city government but also from the local tech community and local universities. Promising innovators benefit from a network of technical experts and fellow innovators as well as training in skills ranging from project management to prototyping. The New Urban Mechanics team also helps with messaging and navigating internal politics.
Next, the authors suggest using data to improve decision-making and to design solutions. Data is particularly important for holding providers and programs accountable for results — and for finding far more efficient and cost-effective ways to deliver public services.
Moving from the traditionally prescriptive public purchasing of social services to a purchasing outcomes with few process requirements, for example, can produce dramatic results. Year after year, the Denver Office of Strategic Partnerships (DOSP) heard from the local nonprofit community about the inconsistent, opaque and time-consuming nature of city purchasing of social services. In response, DOSP is now leading the city's ambitious initiative to align outcomes across multiple agencies and to open the process to innovative providers and new program models.
Finally, Georges, Glynn-Burke and McGrath make the case for establishing a permanent framework of innovation in government. Of primacy is a chief executive who rewards and protects smart risk-taking and recruits risk-takers, including people from nontraditional backgrounds. To develop a culture of innovation from the bottom up, cities must employ active feedback to involve citizens in decision-making. That can create public demand for innovation and help counter the inevitable opposition from those disrupted by it.
The power of such a framework is illustrated by the New York City Department of Education's Innovation Zone (known as iZone), which is committed to building a culture of innovation in hundreds of schools across the city. iZone brings school leaders together into clusters, leveraging the pull of social pressure to share ideas and lessons learned. iZone also creates opportunities to rethink norms embedded in public education without fear of retribution, while its emphasis on measurement and transparency strengthens political support by keeping parents informed.
A number of cities are formalizing innovation as the direct responsibility of individuals and teams, often within the mayor's office. While many cities employ a single focus (sustainability, civic engagement or economic development, for example) that can help frame their innovation-specific work within local priorities, these papers raise the possibility of a more system-wide approach. The authors' framework could be quite useful for cities that have a long-term commitment to building a robust pipeline of new ideas — to thinking of innovation as a long game.