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This Small Southern City Is the Most Innovative in the Country

Fayetteville, N.C., earned the top honors in the annual Equipt to Innovate report, a joint study from Governing and the nonprofit Living Cities.

Fayetteville NC
(Photo courtesy City of Fayetteville)
Fayetteville, N.C., population 205,000, is the most innovative city in the country, according to a new report from Governing in collaboration with the nonprofit Living Cities. 

The second annual Equipt to Innovate report, released this week, assesses municipal governments on a range of metrics -- including data use and strategic planning, racial equity in decisionmaking, and citizen engagement.

Fayetteville was a high performer in last year's inaugural report, in which Phoenix was ranked No. 1, but the North Carolina city rose to the top in this year's evaluation.

“The city of Fayetteville is both thrilled and honored to be recognized this year as the city best equipped in the nation to innovate,” Fayetteville City Manager Douglas J. Hewett says. “This is a reflection of the work in which the city has engaged over a number of years to utilize operational data to inform decisionmaking and to seek new ways to better respond to resident needs.”

While the report does rank cities, the ultimate goal is to offer them best practices and improve their ability to innovate. 

“We didn’t want this to be a rank from one to 25 and a battle over who is No. 1," says Steven Bosacker, principal of public sector and partnerships at Living Cities. "What we wanted to do is show that there are cities that are top performers in different categories and who needs to be held up as examples. We want to provide technical assistance to cities who were hungry to learn.”

Fayetteville was among the top six cities in all but one of the report's seven criteria. 

"There is no way the city could land that high in different elements unless they were doing broad-based planning," says Bosacker. 

This year, 74 cities completed the survey, including the nation’s 10 largest cities and 55 of the 100 largest cities. The top performers in each category for 2018 were:

  • Dynamically Planned – Las Vegas
  • Broadly Partnered – Olathe, Kan.
  • Resident-Involved – Seattle
  • Race-Informed – Louisville, Ky.
  • Smartly Resourced – San Antonio
  • Employee-Engaged – Fayetteville, N.C.
  • Data-Driven – San Diego 
Fayetteville’s use of data and analytics to guide city management and long-term planning stood out, according to Living Cities. The city’s TRACStat system is an open data portal that collects budget and financial data as well as performance results and makes that information available to the public.

“Residents said they wanted to access this information online, and we also want it to be very simple and clear,” says Rebecca Jackson, Fayetteville's director of strategy and performance analytics.

That data is coupled with community input in a process that is both high-tech and low-tech.

At the beginning of each year, Fayetteville holds what it calls “Cafe Conversations.” Citizens meet with the city for free coffee (and free coffee mugs), and they're each given an electronic clicker they can use to weigh in on a host of questions.

“We talk to them about the strategic plan and the overall city, and then we would ask them how satisfied they are with the city’s performance,” Jackson says.

The results are displayed live. City staff then talk to residents about their answers and conduct a resident-informed planning session. The recommendations are taken to the city council before it finalizes the city’s strategic plan for the upcoming year.

Fayetteville scored especially high in the area of employeee engagement, thanks in part to extensive employee surveys the city has conducted. Through those surveys, the city developed a set of core values centered around R.E.S.P.E.C.T., or Responsibility, Ethics, Stewardship, Professionalism, Entrepreneurial Spirit, Commitment and Teamwork. A Core Values Award recognizes the public  employee who best exemplifies those traits.

“Part of this is really looking at ways we can maximize our performance with the resources we have,” says Jackson.

With just over 200,000 residents, Fayetteville is the sixth-largest city in North Carolina. In the new report, it outperformed much larger localities including New York, Los Angeles and last year’s top-ranked city, Phoenix.

“A city of Fayetteville's size and resources must be nimble and must find ways to do more with less," says Hewett, the city manager. "Data and technology are some of the tools with which we have addressed this issue."

While the scale of the government of a large metropolis can provide a wealth of human capital and financial resources to address an issue, the same scale can often be an impediment to quick change.

“You have a greater chance to innovate when the bureaucracy isn’t so big," says Bosacker. "You can talk across city agencies and you don’t have fiefdoms."

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