5 Themes in City Poverty Plans

City Accelerator finalists have commonalities in the problems they face and their proposed solutions.
July 29, 2014 AT 7:00 PM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Throughout this competition, after reviewing each city’s submission video and speaking with mayors and other city leaders, I have consistently noticed striking similarities in the issues municipalities face, regardless of their size, location, history or overall economic outlook. 

Lea King, executive director of the Silicon Valley Talent Partnership (SVTP) in San Jose, might have said it best: “Poverty is a problem that matters to everybody. We should do more.”
The cities in the first Cohort are working to do more and are creating plans of action to quell – or at least make greater headway against – some of our communities’ most troubling and persistent ills. Poverty and its symptomatic effects are compelling leaders to try new ideas in a quest for social innovation. Much like the similarities in their problems, there are also emerging patterns in each city’s proposed plans. 
While leaders in each municipality have put a unique spin on their suggested solutions, below are five consistent themes. 
Dealing with a Convergence of Problems
In discussing their pain points, many city leaders in the first Cohort referenced the Great Recession as the perfect storm that wiped out the economic gains they had made in recent years and complicated the lives of constituents who were already struggling. 
City leaders often described their difficulties as a “convergence” of problems, but they also had similarities in their proposed solutions. Finding new ways to increase efficiency was a common theme, along with dividing problems in more approachable, addressable component parts to conquer one step at a time.
Speaking the Same Language
In biblical narrative, the story of the Tower of Babel describes how future generations of the survivors of the Great Flood, bound together in humanity and common purpose, sought to build a structure that would reach the heavens. United through language, with no communication barriers, there was nothing that stood in way of their success. However, divine intervention confused their languages and forever halted the construction of the tower. 
The lack of communication can make progress difficult, if not impossible, and sometimes it seems like those in government are not only failing to communicate, but are also unable to speak the same language as their constituencies. Several City Accelerator submissions sought to address this.
For example, Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia noted that “the machinations, hassles and duplication” of the existing bureaucratic process must be simplified and resolved if the city was to help low-income individuals maneuver the maze of services the city offers.
David Edinger, Denver’s chief performance officer, alludes to better communication as well when he says it’s important to “ask questions in the right way” to best provide aid for low-income populations.
Focusing on the Most Vulnerable Individuals
The term “vulnerable” and the condition of “vulnerability” came up many times in cities’ videos as well as subsequent conversations.
For example, Kristine Lalonde, co-director of Nashville’s Office of Innovation, outlined plans to devise a “vulnerability index” to set priorities and allocate resources to individuals with multiple diagnoses of mental, physical or cultural impairments. 
In Louisville, Teresa Reno-Weber, chief of performance and technology, discussed creating cross-functional teams to focus on combined, but often related problems like mental illness and substance abuse. San Jose City Manager Ed Shikada said that his city intends to pursue “meaningful solutions addressing the needs of our most vulnerable residents.”  
Creating One-Stop Shops and Centralized Services
Several cities proposed creating a central physical presence or single location to corral services and service providers in one place as a more efficient and effective way to reach the intended public, albeit with a modern day entrepreneurial and digital flair.  
In Albuquerque, Mayor Berry discusses plans to convert the large downtown Old First Baptist Church into a Center for Excellence and Entrepreneurship. In similar fashion, more than one city pointed to plans for new centralized facilities – the old idea of a one-stop shop, but with new tools and trappings for the present digital age.
Getting the Public Involved
Tapping the talents of private citizens and promoting constituent involvement was another common theme. In San Jose, the Silicon Valley Talent Partnership (SVTP) is working on ways to leverage highly skilled constituents for tasks that go beyond working in food shelters and building homes. 
For example, King of SVTP says that many service providers in San Jose are still using outdated methods for managing information and communication. “We have teams of consultants ready to help,” she says. “The talent of a programmer with the ability to create an app to link up all the service providers shouldn't be wasted.”
There is still time to help the cities in the first Cohort by reviewing their proposals. Follow the links below to watch a short video and give your opinion on their plans for progress.
Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.