Kick-Starting the Flow of Ideas

Aiming to get people into the innovative mindset for improving services and saving money, cities are turning to competitions.
by | August 14, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

In this series of columns, I have been exploring the concept of "ideation" — a fancy word for the process of developing and testing new ideas. For cities, this requires both fostering creativity and gaining different perspectives, and while that might sound simple, it can actually be quite disruptive. Idea generation and development demands that everyone involved get out of his or her comfort zone to see and discuss things afresh. There is a powerful tool for engendering this kind of mindset: competition.

This is not about sports-team rivalries or battles for corporate headquarters. This is the kind of competition that can spark creativity, generate energy and bring rigor and discipline to the policymaking process. A few cities have a lot to tell us about it.

In Louisville, Ky., for example, when Mayor Greg Fischer received a Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Delivery Team grant to improve municipal customer service, he used competition to kick-start the process.

To build a stockpile of suggestions, Fischer and his Innovation Delivery Team director, Margaret Handmaker, decided to hold an all-agency contest seeking grand-yet-feasible reforms from every corner of city government. The winning agencies would get to participate in the city's new customer-service initiative and work directly with the mayor's newly formed innovation team. A memo was sent out asking agency directors to come to a half-day idea session and to bring at least three proposals apiece — either original thoughts or best practices from other cities.

The directors arrived with a slew of ideas, and fought hard for them. The process sparked fresh approaches and pushed the agencies to put their best thinking forward. Louisville's customer-service initiatives — which range from improving animal services to revamping the rezoning process — are now ready to go. And while the process had many other facets, the goals the city chose to pursue grew directly out of the competitive brainstorming session.

Baltimore and Chicago are taking a different approach: creating sustained, ongoing competitions through their dedicated innovation funds. Each city awards loans to agencies proposing ideas that would improve services and cut costs.

In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was frustrated with her city's persistent budget shortfalls and the lack of money for new ideas, so her budget chief, Andrew Kleine, proposed that, rather than simply continuing to subtract dollars, they add them where they would do the most good, through an innovation fund.

As part of a much larger performance-budgeting initiative, the city set aside $2 million and asked agencies to pitch ideas that they thought would both enhance services and save money. Accepted projects would be funded with loans, to be paid back within five years, and agencies would be expected to provide business plans showing how they expected to meet their obligations. Each proposal would be judged by a panel of leading venture capitalists, investment bankers and nonprofit directors, who would focus on the potential for return on investment.

The competition for the funds has proved to be a real catalyst. In just two budget cycles, more than 30 ideas have poured in, and three have made it through the process. One proposal was for the Bureau of Environmental Health to go paperless, and now all restaurant and other inspections are conducted via iPads — which means no more inspectors lugging their notes back to the office and handing them off to data-entry workers. The agency is on target not only to pay back its loan but also to gross more than $500,000 through increased revenue.

Another proposal was for electronic conversion for all construction plans. Before the conversion, developers would have to wheel large bins full of architectural plans and permit requests to multiple agencies. Now they can send the information electronically in a single file. This effort has already led to savings and has cut turnaround time for project approvals by more than 20 percent.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel initiated a similar cascade of new agency ideas when he created his own innovation loan fund this past year. The city has set aside $20 million for efficiency and customer improvements, with the first $2 million committed to projects that will cut red tape for businesses and make it easier for citizens to access city services.

Lack of competition is a commonly cited barrier to innovation in government. These three cities are early pioneers in showing the concrete improvements gained from turning business as usual into a healthy fight for the best that city government can do.

This is part of a series of monthly dispatches by New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service examining the Innovation Delivery Teams initiative. The next post, in September, will coincide with a report on the way ideation has guided the work of Bloomberg Philanthropies' grantee cities.