How a Good Idea Can Survive a Mayoral Transition
Providence's new mayor has taken an innovative program for preschoolers launched by his predecessor and expanded it.
The moment that a new mayor takes office is often the moment that promising initiatives meet their demise. Changes in political appointees, policy goals and budget priorities can lead to staff turnover, and as a result even the most innovative ideas are subject to termination.
But in January of this year, when Jorge Elorza succeeded Angel Taveras as mayor of Providence, R.I., the new mayor approached a big, personally branded project of his predecessor's with thoughtful leadership that demonstrated how an initiative can survive from one administration to another. Providence Talks, a young program that was just beginning to show promise, not only was spared from the chopping block but is now positioned to thrive.
In 2013, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched the Mayors Challenge, a competition that encouraged cities to generate innovative ideas that would transform city government and have the potential to spread to other cities. Providence Talks took home the grand prize, $5 million, for a promising proposal to close the "word gap" for the city's economically disadvantaged children.
Research shows children in high-income families are exposed to as many as 30 million more words than kids from families on welfare -- an early advantage that extends into adulthood. Through a combination of word counting technology and personalized coaching for parents, Providence Talks delivers resources to enhance the language environments of the children of low-income families. An evaluation by Brown University will help Providence determine if the project has the intended long-term impact.
Taveras had a personal stake in the initiative: Having grown up poor, he spent his childhood advancing through Providence's Head Start program. Sensitive to conditions that result in the most significant differences in the achievement gap, he wanted to help children whose parents could not afford preschool. The result was Providence Talks. When Elorza succeeded him, he conducted a review of the program and realized that the success of Providence Talks was in no way guaranteed. But he concluded that the risk was worth it, and he took it a step further.
Elorza facilitated a management change to re-energize the program. He conducted a national search for a new director and named Courtney Hawkins, who had overseen a New York City-based human-services agency serving more than 25,000 people annually, as the project's new leader.
The Providence Talks pilot showed strong potential among the 175 families it targeted. Now Hawkins is responsible for scaling the project citywide. She plans on serving 750 more families within the next year.
At one level, Providence Talks is an extraordinary program with special mayoral visibility. At another, it is just a part of the way the mayor is infusing accountability as a central part of his management strategy. For his senior staff, he implemented a project-management system to replace a cumbersome exchange of internal emails with specific task assignments. He monitors the performance of Providence Talks by meeting regularly with Hawkins, who has developed a way for the mayor to track the project's key performance indicators. Accountability, for Elorza, is not just a small part of the program -- it is its underlying principle.
A new director and increased accountability produced value. Yet most important to the program's success and the resulting community benefit was the message Elorza sent to everyone: Those working on or alongside the project in city hall, and those who benefit or might benefit from the program, were all assured that Providence Talks was a personal priority of the mayor's.
The combination of establishing the effort as a priority, installing good project leadership and employing a management style focused on accountability has increased the chances that Providence Talks will succeed and bring results for Providence's children. In the months since the transition, the project has continued to grow to serve more children, and it may well prove to be a model for closing the achievement gap in cities nationwide.