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Creating Systems Change in Your City: 4 Lessons From the Front Lines

After helping a dozen cities implement policy innovations through the City Accelerator initiative, these experts offer some best practices.

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The City Accelerator initiative is a collaboration between Governing, the Citi Foundation and Living Cities that aims to speed the adoption of innovative local government projects within and across cities that will have a significant impact on the lives of their residents, especially those with low incomes.

Have you ever wondered what it takes to create systems change? Have you ever started with just one person or one department spearheading that change with the hope of bringing others along?

In 2014, the Citi Foundation and Living Cities launched City Accelerator, an initiative geared toward improving the lives of low-income residents through municipal innovation. Over the first three years of the project, 12 cities across the country worked to implement and embed smaller-scale innovation to change the local systems in which they operate, addressing the challenges facing low-income residents in their individual locales.

After serving as the evaluation partner and working with those 12 cities, we've put together some brief reflections for cities wanting to disrupt their internal systems and implement and sustain innovative practices: 

  • Cultivate commitment and diversity; create initiatives that align multiple departmental goals. Regardless of department, local government exists to serve the needs of residents; keeping this at the center will serve as a base for bringing departments together under a common goal and agenda. Structure core teams so that multiple team members (within single departments as well as across departments) participate in conversations, hold knowledge, and create overlap in networks. In turn, this will quickly generate commitment to the work at hand and increase the likelihood of sustainability.
  • Ensure readiness to instigate and implement. City Accelerator cities did not start from scratch. Many aspects of their projects were already underway, and City Accelerator provided the necessary financial resources and political cover to propel the work at a faster rate. It takes time and commitment to move from small-scale innovation to large-scale innovation and wider systems change; cities intent on doing more innovative work must be realistic about how they start, and balance the eagerness to innovate with the patience it takes to make long-lasting systems change.
  • Involve constituents in authentic ways. City Accelerator cities employed a diverse set of tools and methods in their outreach efforts, including using culturally competent methods to tap a wider array of constituents, including those who are traditionally harder to reach. Importantly, creating a feedback loop so that residents know and understand how their input is used is critical to build the relationship between government and citizen. A strong partnership between government and community members operating in sync greatly improves the likelihood of success of an individual initiative, and increases the odds of sustaining and scaling effective practices.
  • Fail fast and fail forward. Cities are rapidly changing—with more diverse populations and rising economic inequality, yet fewer resources to tackle pressing challenges. To address these issues, City Accelerator used innovation as the primary tenet for cities to test new ideas in their individual locales. Departments and teams need to provide space for creative thinking, where they can solve problems using alternative tools and methods and understand that failure is a natural part of innovation.
Wherever you are in your innovation journey, consider these actionable items in support of the communities you serve.

For more information on what City Accelerator cities have been able to achieve and what you can do, read our final evaluation report on the first three years of this vital partnership.

Zach Patton -- Executive Editor. Zach joined GOVERNING as a staff writer in 2004. He received the 2011 Jesse H. Neal Award for Outstanding Journalism
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