Public Leadership and the Gift of Time Well Spent

Civic innovation can improve the way government works, but it needs a long runway.
January 20, 2016
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

It's hard to overestimate the intrinsic value of sustained leadership. Sometimes its value hides in plain sight: We wonder why successive waves of leaders and approaches to public problems rarely achieve desired results, but we rarely stop to consider what any departed leadership team might have accomplished if it had remained for four or five more years.

In Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission on which I serve recently made an early decision to extend the contract of the district's superintendent for an additional five years. The average tenure of superintendents in urban school district is under four years. Why are we surprised that so little consistency and time for execution has yielded limited results? Extending our superintendent's contract gives the district a decade to double down on its intransigent problems of poor academic achievement, low graduation rates and disparities among neighborhoods. We have a plan we believe in and, despite deplorably inadequate resources, leadership that can make the most of what it has to work with.

Philadelphia offers another positive illustration of what enough runway can offer leaders. Last year, the city's Office of Innovation and Technology was recognized as a White House Champion of Innovation. That award, one of many the office has received, acknowledged achievements over six years due to the leadership of Philadelphia Managing Director Rich Negrin and Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid in transforming a city struggling with its performance in a rapidly changing digital world.

A cross-city team led by Negrin and Ebeid brought Philadelphia's municipal technology infrastructure into a front-of-the-pack position that features a high-functioning 311 service with an award-winning, multilingual mobile app and an open-data policy that has put more than 80 administrative data sets online. The data sets are widely accessed by individuals as well as by "civic hackers" to produce innovative websites and mobile apps. The city itself has developed apps that provide neighborhood-level information for tracking zoning, elections, activities and property characteristics. Cloud-based systems have freed critical resources from the need for hardware support. It took six years to get to this point, and, as Negrin acknowledges, "there's no dancing in the endzone here. There's much more to do, and in technology everything needs refreshing every two to three years."

The strategies used by Negrin and Ebeid are standards in the executive toolbox, much of which Negrin attributes to the executive training he received during a four-year stint at Aramark, the giant food-services company. A key factor for success was the executive decision to take the time to build critical components:

The technology basics: Philadelphia's legacy IT systems evidenced ailments common to under-resourced public agencies that have seen huge turnover in leadership. Despite a mandate to innovate, Negrin's first task was to bring daily operations to an acceptable level of performance. Nuts and bolts needed to work; downtimes had to be minimal, response times acceptable. This took time, but was essential to build credibility for leadership and to earn the right to innovate.

Relationships with talent external to city government: The lively technology start-up community in Philadelphia welcomed partnerships with the city administration, providing creative expertise, fresh non-bureaucratic insights and a chorus of support for the innovation occurring within the city government.

Innovation competence inside the organization: A partnership between the city's Innovation Academy and Philadelphia University offers selected early adopters throughout city government training in innovation strategies leading to a Municipal Innovation Certificate. The result is a growing cadre of innovators who return to their duty assignments as part of a network that knows how to innovate, how to draw on cross-departmental support and how to function as a pipeline of leadership long after an administration leaves office.

Earlier this month, a new mayor took over a city workforce far more prepared for a digital-first world. By taking the time to get things right, Philadelphia -- a city of historical firsts -- is positioned to become an innovation center again.

At the request of the Harvard Kennedy School's Stephen Goldsmith, Philadelphia Managing Director Rich Negrin recently gave a presentation at a National League of Cities event on the city's innovation efforts, captured in a podcast available online. It's definitely worth a listen (or a watch, as the audio is accompanied by helpful visuals).