Getting Innovation Off the Ground

How a single step forward can start cities down the path of becoming equipt.
May 29, 2018
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By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.
Smartly Resourced Broadly Partnered Data-Driven Dynamically Planned Employee-Engaged Race-Informed Resident-Involved

We have entered the third year of being Equipt or, more properly, becoming Equipt. Over the last two years, nearly 100 cities have participated in Equipt to Innovate, a joint initiative of Governing and the nonprofit Living Cities to help cities assess their readiness across seven key elements of high-performance government. You can download the report from the latest survey here to find out more about how cities became top performers in innovation.

For every top performer, there are cities that are still struggling to move forward or even get started. Hampered by limited resources, resistance to change, a large workload and shifting priorities, it is not uncommon to feel left behind. It may seem hard to keep up with the latest digitization project or create a lean academy for staff. I know. I served as mayor of a city of 40,000 souls. It was hard to do everything, but we could always do something. Progress can start with a single step. Here are a few ideas on where to begin.

DYNAMICALLY PLANNED: Start with a simple vision statement.

Strategic planning can seem costly and time consuming. However, not every strategic plan needs to be long or complicated. Simply start with articulating a clear, long-term vision that is transparent and has a shelf life of at least 3 to 5 years. Incorporate the vision in the annual budget, and other important plans such as capital improvement plans, economic development plans and marketing plans. Develop some broad goals for the city by soliciting input from city employees, key officials, area businesses and residents. Allow drafts of the plan and its components to live online and use your website and social media accounts to solicit ideas and feedback to make the process transparent. See if there is a local university or business that can assist with providing free strategic planning services, such as creating surveys, facilitating meetings, researching, compiling reports and helping with communications.

BROADLY PARTNERED: Standardize staff meetings.

It’s surprising that many cities do not have a regular or standing staff or department head meeting. This is a great way to ensure staff from different departments are aware of what is happening outside of their day-to-day work. These meetings are important to ensure the city’s priorities are relayed consistently, and they are a great avenue to exchange ideas to solve operational issues or start new projects. Staff meetings also help develop goals, metrics and outcomes that can be measured periodically. Getting city employees working together is a good start to initiating cross-sector collaborations. Invite speakers from the private, nonprofit, academic and philanthropic sectors to meetings. Have staff talk about their collaborations and encourage others to follow suit.

RESIDENT-INVOLVED: Make it easy for residents to reach out.

Not all residents know what department to call or are able to navigate a website to find a number or email. It’s important to post prominent numbers on the webpage, or direct people to a centralized office to talk to a live person. Have a dedicated email for resident input, complaints and questions. If residents can easily reach out, it makes it easier for a city to maintain two-way communications. Understanding citizen concerns can help shape and prioritize goals, let departments know how to improve and inform new investments. But engaging residents also means ensuring they are aware of key meetings and activities in the city. Post a calendar of public events and projects at the library and senior center, as well as on the web and social media. Use the press to communicate important issues and directly say that resident involvement is wanted and needed, such as listing open seats on boards and commissions. With more time and resources, consider investing in phone or web-based tools that inform residents of emergencies, or solicit input on public works issues like potholes and broken streetlights. Solicit volunteers to create and issue a resident survey.

RACE-INFORMED: Start listening.

Cities can still be intentional about addressing race in policymaking and operations even in the absence of a racial equity plan. Awareness is key – awareness by city leaders and awareness by residents that city leaders are ready to listen. It’s important for the community to hear key city officials talk about race and to create a space to listen and learn. Analyze key indicators such as education, income, homeownership, incarceration rates and health disparities to understand the issues. Work with the Human Rights Commission, the library, a local college or nonprofit focusing on minority services and ask them to coordinate public events, sit on a committee or conduct a research project into the city’s racial history. Work with department heads on how their services could be more equitable, such as revamping hiring practices, expanding police youth outreach programs and reviewing transportation options.

SMARTLY RESOURCED: Get the budget right.

Crowdfunding, public-private partnerships and social impact funds are all ways to enhance funding. But the fundamentals of city governance start with the budget. Cities should have a solid budget process that actively involves department heads, and if possible, the public. Create a budget process that occurs year-round, including regular reporting from month to month on budget versus actuals to get a good sense of when and why funding irregularities occur. Budgets that include departmental goals, objectives and accomplishments increase transparency to decision-makers and the public. Take a look at figures from the previous five years to look for trends and try projecting out a few years ahead to look for structural deficits. Some cost-reduction measures will take time to produce savings and it is good to starting planning ahead. Get help from a rating company to figure out unfunded mandates and liabilities such as employee pension and health care costs. And if you don’t yet have a capital budget, start now.

EMPLOYEE-ENGAGED: Have a good performance management system.

Employees are central to the operation of a city and are a key component in driving innovation -- or creating stagnation. Employee engagement starts with making sure employees understand their roles and have the right tools in place to do their jobs. Review and update job descriptions, or make sure there is one to begin with. Have a process for setting goals. This could easily be part of the annual budget process if it is too time consuming to develop a separate system. Also ensure employees know who their supervisors are and work with supervisors to establish a performance review system. This could be an annual self-assessment, joint working meeting or regular reporting system. There are a lot of free and standardized employee surveys online that can be used, as well as community organizations that can help with creating annual employee recognition events.

DATA-DRIVEN: Designate a data person (or people).

Not every city has an IT department or a data management system, but a city still needs a designated person (or two) to ensure some basics are covered. That data person could be out of the manager or mayor’s office, or embedded within a department, such as a crime analyst within the police department. It needs to be clear who is in charge of what data. For example, a staff member within a planning department may also have some website expertise and can be designated the responsibility of updating the website with information. The responsibility of reviewing information can and should be spread out across departments, but having a designated person or persons to keep track helps ensure information is up to date. It is also important to develop a data policy, ranging from use of social media to what and how often information should be made publicly available. Posting budgets and plans online, as well as having hard copies in public buildings will help inform the public and create transparency. Cities don’t need fancy software or technology to make data-informed decisions. Establishing metrics and keeping track in a basic spreadsheet is good enough, as long as the data is monitored and used to inform policy and operations.

In all of this, remember that Equipt is a verb. Becoming Equipt is a process of maturity of your city as a whole, measured across seven vital elements that, together, help grow the organizational muscle and discipline necessary to take on the challenges of governing in an increasingly complex world.