Doubling Down on the Innovation-Team Model

Another 14 cities are about to build their own "i-teams." No longer an experimental approach, it's a proven route to cross-cutting accomplishments.

You see it again and again in cities that are struggling to meet big challenges: Local governments often lack two of the essential ingredients for innovation. The first is manpower -- resource-strapped city employees can hardly find the time to keep the trains running and react to emergencies, much less to creatively rethink processes. The second is organizational structure -- local governments are traditionally siloed, leaving little support for the cross-agency collaboration required to tackle the most ingrained urban problems.

This week, Bloomberg Philanthropies doubled down on its commitment to an ambitious model for helping cities overcome these two thorny obstacles to innovation. The foundation announced the 14 latest cities that will receive funding for up to three years to adopt its "innovation team" approach. Under the model, each city will hire a team of in-house consultants dedicated to helping city workers and leaders tackle problems ranging from affordable housing to public safety to customer service. The innovation teams, or "i-teams" for short, will provide the missing manpower and organizational structure that many cities sorely need. They'll help city leaders and staff leverage data to understand challenges, come up with effective new ways to solve them, and follow through on results.

Bloomberg Philanthropies first tested this approach to innovation back in 2011, providing a total of $24 million to five U.S. cities. The program was inspired in part by several dedicated innovation units in former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration (in which I served as deputy mayor of operations), which separately worked to tackle government operations, sustainability and poverty. Now, as Bloomberg Philanthropies' i-team program embarks on its second round of funding, the foundation has substantially increased the size and scope of the initiative, selecting 12 U.S. cities and two in Israel to receive a total of $45 million in grants.

Bloomberg Philanthropies' expansion of its i-team program should make it clear that the innovation-team model is no longer just an experimental approach. It's become a proven model that can deliver impressive results.

Take it from the people who would know best: the mayors of the five U.S. cities that received grants in 2011. Last week, these mayors penned op-eds for CNN Money heralding what the Bloomberg i-team grants allowed them to accomplish. Atlanta reduced homelessness, Chicago streamlined licensing for local businesses, Louisville sped up the rezoning approval process, Memphis revitalized its neighborhoods and New Orleans cut its murder rate. Especially for a first-round program, these achievements are remarkable.

Now, as Bloomberg Philanthropies' i-team program expands internationally and across the U.S., the innovation-team model will face new challenges and opportunities. Here are two themes that I expect to figure prominently as the initiative embarks on its second round of funding:

Different cities call for different innovation models. While the five U.S. cities funded in the program's first round faced varying challenges, they shared an identity as large regional centers in the American heartland. This time, the cities are more diverse. Participating cities in the program's second round range from Centennial, Colo., which has just over 100,000 residents, to Los Angeles, population 3.9 million. Geographically, participating cities will stretch from Long Beach, Calif., to Tel Aviv, 10 time zones away. Such diverging urban characters will require the innovation teams to stretch according to local conditions.

Existing city workers have an important role to play. As the Bloomberg Philanthropies team has pointed out, i-teams are only part of the solution. Existing city-government staffers, especially from performance-oriented units, can be important players in carrying out the innovation-delivery approach. To be successful, participating cities will have to leverage the insights and contributions of these experienced city workers.

When the first round of grants was announced three years ago, I noted that the initiative had given the innovation-team model "an important boost." This second round of funding provides further validation of the approach's effectiveness in adding capacity for cross-cutting accomplishments. For cities across the globe, there's more reason than ever to be optimistic that even the biggest urban challenges can be tackled with the right structures in place.

Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program