Want to Innovate? Determine Your City's Greatest Need and Get to Work

Governments must ask themselves critical questions before change can happen.
December 11, 2014 AT 12:00 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.

Innovation – also known as change – does not often come easily or naturally to governments. Many times, the stereotypes of slow-moving bureaucracies are not exaggerations.

Of course, change can be difficult for anyone, but in my experience, outdated systems, policies and procedures tend to hang around far longer in governments. In some cases this is due to insufficient funding for modern equipment and training; in other cases it’s simply because employees resist the new and unfamiliar.

Some years back I remember reviewing specifications for the purchase of a new public works bulldozer. I called the equipment supervisor and asked why he had listed “mechanical drive” as a specification. He replied that this is what the department had always had and what they knew how to operate. I had to inform him that such machines were no longer in production and all new bulldozers were hydraulic drive. Only then was he willing to accept change.

While much of my public service career was centered in Southeast Tennessee, I have worked across the United States and even in a few other countries. Resistance to change is pervasive and part of human nature.

Nigel Jacob, urban technologist in residence for Living Cities, says if governments are to successfully innovate and change they must ask critical questions, including “What matters most?” and “What do we work on?” Choices must be both inspirational and broadly accepted by the public at large and the public servants who will be tasked with the challenges.

As a former mayor myself, I know mayors generally have access to a great wealth of data and information in determining the wishes and desires of citizens, including questions asked and answered in professionally conducted political polls, service request systems such as 311 or feedback from public meetings.

It's a mayor’s job to be in tune with what the community needs. But it’s also the job of a mayor or chief executive to ensure the city council or other legislative body is on board. A reluctant council can make it difficult to achieve success. Council members are often closest to neighborhood groups and special interest organizations. The importance of mayors maintaining good rapport with all elected officials cannot be overstated.

In his column titled “How to Innovate on What Matters Most,” Jacob lists three easy ways in which governments can start to create change. Below is my perspective on these steps:

1. Go to the people. While social media is an important tool for engagement and communication, I don't believe that it can ever replace the advantages of face-to-face meetings with the public. A well-promoted public meeting will bring out the truly engaged and (sometimes) enraged. Both are important. During my term as mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., we held regular meetings in council districts with an emphasis on conversations with the audience. We devoted most of the meeting to what I called "Stump the Mayor," and encouraged citizens to present their questions and concerns. Inevitably, some individuals would complain they couldn't get through the gate keepers – at which point I would ask one of the gate keepers to get their name and phone number. A few times I gave out my home phone number and even my cell number. My staff would gasp, but interestingly, few people actually called. My home phone was always a listed number anyway (with an answering system for screening calls, of course). Local media was always present at the meetings, as was the chief of police with a few uniformed officers (naturally), but in the context of the meeting they did not seem out of place or threatening. The fire chief and key staff were present as well. While Facebook, Twitter and other social media are great tools, nothing compares with face-to-face public meetings, although streaming meetings on the Web could possibly replace public meetings in the future.
2. Connect with colleagues. Jacob is correct in singling out this part of the process of spurring innovation. Change agents are a rare breed and not everyone occupying a top administrative position in government will be up for the task. Creativity, flexibility and diplomacy are some of the necessary characteristics. Bringing staff to public meetings helps to identify those special people that truly have a desire for change and innovation. In Jacob’s words, "Look for people who are fired up.”
3. Articulate your criteria for projects. First and foremost, city projects must be “doable” and something that will have a positive impact on an identified need. It’s ok to set out to change the world, but optimism must be tempered with a healthy dose of reality. We often set visionary goals, but need a measuring stick to clearly indicate what constitutes progress. At the same time, some of the more enthusiastic, “fired up” staff members might need to be reined in from time to time. Some of my best change agents were great at stirring up a crowd (and themselves), but would need to be reminded privately that innovation is a process and small victories are important too. I have also found it is important to publicly celebrate those small victories and to recognize the responsible individuals.
In October 1969, Walter Cronkite announced to the world that Chattanooga was the most polluted city in America. The forces that led the city to become "the most transformed city in America" (as we often call it) – now clean and green and growing – are much the same tools of innovation and change identified by Nigel Jacob and the Office of New Urban Mechanics. Chattanooga's polluted air and cloudy future did not clear immediately and the transformation was not an accomplishment of any single mayor or individual or even groups of individuals. It’s an ongoing 40-year process that continues toward a goal that may never be fully achieved.

The point is that the principles of innovation and progress are proven. It begins with determining what matters most – what is a city's greatest need – and then getting to work.  

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