Incorporating Innovation into Local Government

Backed by $24 million in foundation funds, five cities are creating dedicated teams in their mayors’ offices to look for ways to fundamentally restructure how the cities do what they do. There is much to be learned from this ambitious effort.
by | June 12, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

In an economic downturn that has left municipal budgets tight and the need for government services great, the interest in creative thinking about local problems is understandably intense. In just the past two years, the number of Google hits on the words "government innovation" has increased from 38 million to 1.4 billion as leaders and line staff at every level of government look for ways to do more with less.

Unfortunately, the same social and economic conditions that have intensified interest in the idea of innovation have left most cities with little time or money to explore it. Government officials all too often spend their days in a mad dash just to keep things up and running. And although budget cuts have produced some creative fixes, few city halls have the financial or human resources to fundamentally restructure how they do what they do or to incorporate innovation into their way of governing.

But what would happen if they did?

Bloomberg Philanthropies has launched a five-city, $24 million Innovation Delivery Team initiative in an effort to find out. The program is not a quest for a lightning strike of inspiration or a single "Eureka!" moment. It is one of the largest foundation-backed efforts ever to test a structural approach to increasing innovation capacity in government. It is about innovation that looks well beyond the goal of generating a raft of bright new ideas or implementing transformative new technologies. Here innovation means building and employing mechanisms for slogging through the biggest, most complex issues that city governments face.

The innovation delivery teams are designed to serve as the core of that structure, through which chief executives can pinpoint, reimagine and address tough problems. The teams differ from typical task forces, consulting groups or ad-hoc committees in several important ways. Each team:

• Operates as a standalone unit within the mayor's office, publicly tasked with and responsible for driving innovation. Team members coordinate efforts across multiple departments, but they sit outside the line management hierarchy, neither managing nor being managed by them.

• Is staffed with project managers, data analysts and creative problem-solvers — rather than with experts in specific subject areas — whose skills can be applied to any problem or issue.

• Works with its partners in city government to ensure that the ideas the teams come up with are implemented. Unlike a traditional task force, the innovation delivery teams don't call it quits once a blue-ribbon report is issued.

Beginning last July, Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Memphis and New Orleans each received grants to recruit top-tier talent to staff their respective innovation delivery teams, each of which has been charged with taking on two thorny, high-priority problems. The priorities chosen by the cities' mayors range widely: For example, Louisville opted to improve regional job-creation strategies, while New Orleans committed to lowering its homicide rate. Both New Orleans and Chicago will work to reduce waiting and processing time for city services, while Memphis plans to try to reduce handgun violence and Atlanta wants to reduce homelessness.

As we write, the mayors and their teams are beginning to launch their initiatives. What are we seeing so far? First, these teams can move. The dedicated capacity — bolstered by the mayoral mandate — is enabling the teams to get through big, messy issues quickly. Second, their work is smart. The level of analysis behind the initiatives is deep and robust, giving cities real insight into the nature of the challenges they aim to overcome and allowing them to ground their initiatives solidly in data. Third, the initiatives are informed by best and emerging practices from elsewhere. This "horizon scanning" has enabled mayors to simultaneously take the best ideas from other places even as they create new initiatives from scratch.

There will be much more to learn and reflect upon from the five cities as they embark on one of the greatest modern experiments in local-government innovation. This is the first in a series of monthly dispatches by New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service that will examine this effort. Future posts will look at how the teams are succeeding, where they are running into challenges and what they can tell us about municipal innovation everywhere.