3 Ways Cities Can Promote Innovation Up and Down the Food Chain

Change in government requires empowering and energizing its employees.
November 30, 2015

Across the country, government leaders are pushing to prioritize the needs of their constituents over the limitations of their bureaucracies. Code for America fellows and other civic hackers, for example, are working to make government "simpler, more beautiful and easier to use." With the support of Living Cities and the Citi Foundation, the city of Philadelphia is experimenting with ways to make public benefits easier to access. Approaches like user research, human-centered design and product management can help government do this better.

But what about government workers? A robust practice of innovation requires a robust culture of innovation, and that requires energetic participation from the rank-and-file. One of the core goals of the Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, which I co-chair, and of the work I lead for the City Accelerator, is to create this kind of culture. Doing so requires us to empower and embolden our people.

Here are a few ways city governments can better empower their people to innovate.

1) Space

The startup world is famous for physical workspaces that foster innovation among workers. Google’s is one of the best-known examples. Other designs accommodate a need for both focus (i.e. quiet) and collaboration. The key is that the spaces are designed to encourage interaction, serendipity and, by extension, innovation. Philadelphia has a beautiful innovation space right in its City Hall. Of course, most of us don’t get to build our workplaces from scratch, let alone play ping-pong at work, but there are simple things we can do, like moving desks around, painting a wall with IdeaPaint, or putting up white boards in a common area, that encourage people to bounce ideas off each other and energize a space.

Digital workspaces have been trickier to implement in local government, but they can, when done well, be great equalizers in empowering city employees to share learnings and ideas. Living Cities, through its work with Bloomberg Philanthropies, connects cities in their i-team program through Yammer, a Facebook-like private webpage linked to Salesforce. There are nearly infinite tools to choose from. I should say these have not worked so well on an enterprise scale in local government, but that’s not to say they couldn’t. In Boston, meanwhile, the city has been able to make digital workspaces work fairly well on a project basis.

2) Personnel Policies and Practices

If we really want all city staff to innovate, we have to align our HR practices with that desire. This is not as sexy as other aspects of government innovation, but it’s just as important. I’m talking about basic things like career paths, parental leave and professional development opportunities. If you think cities don’t have the money for these, think about all the money cities spend hiring consultants for the skills our people should already have.

Some Accelerator cities are working with us on this. Nashville, for example, is using our support to document their Ideas 2 Reality innovation training program. Fellowships like this one, moreover, help government workers skill up and build a path to their own futures.  

3) Rewarding Innovation -- And Even Failure

By offering rewards, not necessarily financial, for innovative work that both fails and succeeds, local governments can get people excited about innovating. In Boston, we sometimes just have Mayor Walsh come shake someone’s hand when they’ve done a good job. Or we’ll recognize an experiment someone tried that failed so that others know that failure is fine when it happens for the right reasons.

Rank-and-file public servants are critical players in creating a culture and practice of innovation in local government, and we ignore this at our peril. If we want to truly bring the power of innovation to the public sector, we have to create enabling environments that empower and energize our people.

These are just a few ways we can do it, and there are many more.

Trip Carpenter contributed to this piece.

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.