A Philanthropic Nudge for Civic Innovation

Cities are doing it for themselves but not by themselves.
January 11, 2016 AT 11:00 AM
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.

It’s a commonly used phrase as cities grapple with long-standing issues: “Government can’t do this work alone.”

One of the most intractable issues for municipalities is that of poverty. As CityLab recently reported, three-quarters of neighborhoods that were poor 40 years ago remain poor today and there are 3 times as many high-poverty census tracts in the U.S. today as there were in the 1970s.

Fueled by these realities, the City Accelerator launched in 2014 to provide philanthropic support to cities with innovative plans to improve the lives of their low-income citizens. More than just a grant program, the City Accelerator helps municipalities collaborate with peers and develop an understanding of the policies that do and do not work.

Key staff from participating cities recently discussed (watch the video above) how the initiative has given them room to innovate, prompted organizational changes and helped convene cities around issues of common concern.

As we begin the new year, it’s useful to reflect on their progress – and what lies ahead in 2016.

Cohort I

  • Nashville

    Nashville’s focus has been embedding a culture of continuous improvement in its government processes and utilizing open data. The city is creating mission-driven teams drawn from diverse city departments working with private sector entrepreneurs to achieve this mission.

  • Philadelphia

    Philadelphia has the highest poverty of all major U.S. cities. The city is working to more effectively use available resources by encouraging people to participate in existing programs designed to help low-income citizens.

  • Louisville

    Louisville is attempting to emulate private sector research and development by embedding innovation into the fabric of government.

Cohort II

  • Albuquerque

    Albuquerque is focused on improving the business climate for local immigrant entrepreneurs through more effective public engagement.

  • Atlanta

    Atlanta is working to improve citizen engagement, particularly as it relates to the impact of a major new football arena constructed in a historic inner-city neighborhood.

  • Baltimore

    Baltimore is working to reduce crime and is specifically engaging people leaving incarceration, increasing their chances of success in society.

  • New Orleans

    Charity Hospital, known affectionately as "Big Charity," was a casualty of Hurricane Katrina. Since then, New Orleans has replaced this main facility for serving those in poverty with a network of more than 60 local health clinics. The new neighborhood clinics provide a more modern, potentially more efficient and effective alternative, but success will depend on greater utilization of these facilities instead of emergency rooms.

  • Seattle

    One of the fastest growing cities in the nation, Seattle is employing enhanced methods of civic engagement to update its comprehensive plan in the midst of a peak real estate cycle. 

Leadership change is a challenge for all of the cities. In 2015, Nashville and Philadelphia elected new mayors and Atlanta and Baltimore will follow in 2016. Political and professional leadership is always a revolving door. In both Cohort I and Cohort II, city leaders expressed desire to make innovative practices stick and initiated plans to thoroughly weave the new policies and programs into the fabric of city government, thereby creating a permanent new culture. Louisville in particular made this a key part of its work. The leadership changes underway in all participating cities will test the effectiveness of those plans.

Cohort III

The City Accelerator will launch Cohort III in early 2016 and will focus on innovation in public infrastructure financing. This topic is timely as the American Society of Engineers (ASCE) estimates we need a minimum $3.6 trillion investment in our roads, bridges, tunnels, rails, pipes and other critical infrastructure by 2020.

An article in Urban Land notes, “In light of urban population growth, cities are looking to prioritize repair and maintenance, and at the same time tackle critical needs such as water supply and distribution, public education, aviation, vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and rail safety. Governments will focus on urgently needed repairs first, leaving the door open for creative solutions. …  As the need to do more with less becomes more acute, innovative solutions to infrastructure needs are likely to mark the latter half of this decade and beyond.”

Finding new ways to solve the problems of a dense, interdependent civilization will soon be a critical part of every city's daily effort. Change is not an option; it's an unstoppable force. Failure to employ creativity and innovation to more effectively utilize scarce resources simply means failure overall, with negative consequences for the most vulnerable populations. The work of City Accelerator has never been more essential.  

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.