The notion that people in government should be more creative in tackling daily problems has spurred an innovation movement in recent years. The term has taken on many meanings, from building mobile apps to teaching problem-solving techniques to government employees. The philanthropic arm of Citigroup, in partnership with the nonprofit Living Cities, has launched a new effort to understand and replicate municipal innovation.
Out of an initial group of 35 cities, and six finalists, Citi Foundation and Living Cities selected Philadelphia, Louisville, Ky., and Nashville to receive $3 million in technical assistance over 18 months. While the mission of the program is to encourage a more creative, proactive style of governance, the cities also had to explain how they would use that general approach to help the poor.
Philadelphia’s proposal calls for increasing the percentage of people who participate in social welfare programs. Louisville’s plans focus on identifying people with both mental illness and substance abuse and connecting them with the resources to avoid returning to jails and emergency rooms. The goal in Nashville is to reduce homelessness.
The City Accelerator program is part of a national conversation about how to best generate and sustain innovation. Some are relying on outside consultants or stand-alone offices of innovation, while others are trying to make innovation a standard business practice.
Last month Bloomberg Philanthropies, the private foundation established by former New York City Mayor and multibillionaire Michael Bloomberg, announced $45 million in grants for cities of at least 100,000 people to adopt the foundation’s Innovation Delivery Model -- a structured, data-driven approach to problem-solving that yielded promising results in five cities.
On its face, asking government to set goals, track progress with data, form partnerships with outside partners and use technology might seem too commonsense to warrant large financial rewards. But Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton, who helped his city win $5 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies a few years ago, explained that government tends to be risk-adverse, discouraging workers from experimentation. That's why innovation contests can be valuable to cities: They create an environment that invites city employees to think creatively and measure impact, he said.
The City Accelerator program doesn’t offer funding per se, but cities will be able to tap into the expertise of Nigel Jacob, a co-founder of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, who earned a joint Public Official of the Year award from Governing in 2011. Jacob, whose office functions as an IT shop that creates software applications for public use, is currently the urban technologist-in-residence at Living Cities.
Public officials will also benefit from site visits to each of the three cities, where they can observe and discuss their projects in person.
“It’s a different sale. Money is not the incentive,” said Kristine LaLonde, co-chief innovation officer in the city of Nashville. “It’s the structure and thought partnering and added incentives to capture what we’re learning and disseminating what we’re learning.”
Living Cities plans to release and update an implementation guide based on the cities’ experience in the City Accelerator program. At the same time, Citi Foundation is paying for ongoing coverage of the program by columnists in the Governing Institute, an initiative affiliated with Governing that works with state and local leaders to improve performance through research and education. Ron Littlefield, the former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., and a senior fellow at the Governing Institute, has already written more than a dozen blog posts about the program, themes in the city proposals and the nature of governmental innovation.
“There’s a cacophony of activity around ‘cities need to be doing different things,’” said Ted Smith, chief of civic innovation in Louisville. Both Boston and Philadelphia have in-house IT shops for developing apps for citizens. Bloomberg Philanthropies is offering grants for municipal innovation. Code for America, a nonprofit in San Francisco, is lending computer programmers to embed in cities, with the intent of developing software that solves old problems in new ways. “We’re now at a point where we’re trying to get some focus on the way that cities rationalize, organize and prioritize this kind of effort in a sustainable way," Smith said.
The selection process for the final three cities involved a panel from Citi Foundation and Living Cities. One of the considerations was how each city fared in reader reviews and ratings on a special landing page on Governing’s website. Three other cities, Albuquerque, Denver and San Jose, also pitched ideas, which can be read (or watched) here.
The City Accelerator program is scheduled to add additional cities to the program in 2015, though policy themes driving their work will focus on subjects other than poverty.