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City Officials Highlight Innovative 'Ideas Worth Stealing'

From a community compost exchange to mayors funds, here are a few innovative ideas that city officials just might want to steal for themselves.

ideas worth stealing
Last week, city officials from around the country gathered in Los Angeles to share ideas about how government can be more data-driven, creative and effective in solving public problems. The raison d'etre for the Government Performance and Innovation Summit, an annual event hosted by Governing magazine and its nonprofit partner Living Cities, is to showcase, spread and scale up promising programs and practices in local government.

Over two days, more than a dozen city officials, including mayors, treasurers and innovation directors, sat down with Governing to highlight what ideas they’d like to steal from another jurisdiction and what other jurisdictions ought to steal from them.

Here’s a brief list of the ideas they said were worth stealing:

A Mayors Foundation or Fund: Both New York City and Los Angeles have a “mayors fund,” which is a nonprofit that encourages partnerships between government, philanthropy, nonprofits and businesses. The funds also receive donations to support government initiatives and evaluate their impact.

"To have a foundation that is dedicated to mission, that is fully funded [...] would be a real opportunity to have an outside partner to really support our work," says Gary, Indiana, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.

A GovLab: GovLabPHL, a multi-agency team housed in the Philadelphia mayor’s office, partners with academics at five local universities to improve service delivery. Specifically, GovLabPHL has used behavioral economics to increase enrollment in a water utility discount program for seniors and to make enrollment forms in other programs easier to access and fill out. 

The crosscutting nature of GovLabPHL caught the eye of Adria Finch, the director of innovation in the Syracuse mayor's office. "They have actually started to bring in people from other parts of the organization, other city departments, to do innovative work," she says. "I think that's something we'd love to do." 

A Compost Exchange: Anchorage, Alaska, allows residents to bring in food scraps to the city landfill and get finished compost in return. "Innovation doesn't have to be technology," says Brendan Babb, the city's chief innovation officer. 

Homecoming for City Expats: The mayor's office in Gary, Indiana, wants the input and expertise of former residents who've moved away. In conjunction with alumni reunions at a handful of local high schools, the city is supporting a homecoming for its "expats." The city is also inviting former residents to provide feedback for its comprehensive plan. The mayor's office also hopes that expats can assist with or lead projects where skilled professionals in Gary are in short supply. 

"We joke a lot about our best export being our people," says Terrance Smith, who directs the mayor's innovation team in Mobile, Ala. "It would be really good if we could build our capacity for innovation by bringing the people back for one day or two days to share what they've learned around the world."

Parking Tickets for Financial Empowerment: The St. Louis Treasurer’s Office collects parking ticket revenue. While most of the money goes to the city, Treasurer Tishaura Jones uses more than $300,000 per year for “financial empowerment” programs, such as free children savings accounts, tax assistance for low-to-moderate income filers and financial literacy classes.

"We're able to use a portion of our revenues ... to invest in people and turn parking tickets from something people hate to something people hate a little less," says Jones. 

Financial Justice Project: San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros is seeking to reduce or eliminate government fines or fees that are unaffordable to low-income residents, have a disproportionate impact on people of color and can push people into poverty.

"I think this is a way for the city and our local courts and everybody involved with our local government to take a look at how we're doing and make sure we're treating people fairly," Cisneros says. 

Civic University: The office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti partners with a local university to teach residents about their local government, both in terms of how it's organized and also how to influence it. 

Understanding how government does everything from zoning to drafting a budget is "probably the most important but least transmitted idea from government," Garcetti says. "We hang on to this information like it's holy and proprietary. But it's the people's information. It needs to work for them." 

Here's a video from the conference about these ideas and others:

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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