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The City of No-Frills Innovation

Ten years after Katrina, New Orleans is solving municipal challenges and improving lives.

mitch landrieu

Upon taking office in 2010, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu established the Office of Performance and Accountability. He often enthusiastically declares his city is the nation's laboratory for innovation. (JD Lasica)

Editor’s note: A media juggernaut is already beginning to amass in the Gulf Coast, eager to retell the story of Hurricane Katrina and take stock of the efforts to rebuild affected communities 10 years on. Then as now, New Orleans was and is the focus of much of that attention. Coincidentally, New Orleans entered the second cohort of the City Accelerator in May of this year. We asked Jeremy Goldberg, an emergent voice in public-private civic innovation, to reflect on what he is seeing through his work on the ground in the city.

No matter the audience, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu explains how knocking down bureaucratic silos and building cross-sector partnerships form the backbone of solving municipal challenges. Nearly as often, Landrieu enthusiastically declares: “New Orleans is the nation’s laboratory for innovation.” After my frequent visits to the Crescent City, that claim continues to ring true. In short, New Orleans is demonstrating that governing with civic innovation as a high priority is about working hard, measuring performance and improving lives.

During the past six months working in and with the city of New Orleans, I am witnessing innovation across departments within New Orleans (NOLA) City Hall and outside the city’s government, with civic and social impact-oriented organizations such as Propeller, IdeaVillage, PowerMoves.NOLA and, most recently, the City Accelerator. These innovations, while all emphasizing high quality, transparency and sustainability, have a common thread: customer service with a premium on accountability.

The focus on accountable innovation is how New Orleans is unique and provides an example for many cities. Upon taking office in 2010, Mayor Landrieu established the Office of Performance and Accountability, which is led by Oliver Wise.  So, just how did this start and what are the implications?

The Basement
Without the gloss of a Silicon Valley workspace, “The Basement” is an innovation location (literally in the basement of New Orleans City Hall) where teams of civil servants apply an agile approach to municipal government. Today, a walk through The Basement illuminates one of the finest innovation labs in NOLA, a city praised for its culture of entrepreneurship and co-working spaces. I see signs of this transformation -- a plethora of sticky notes across this collaborative workspace showcase the lean and agile pathways of project management, with great people applying them. “The Basement is not a place they are relegated to, rather this is a space where the innovation is made available,” said Alexandra Norton, the city’s director of innovation.

This physical space was launched with a team of very talented internal consultants and tech professionals at a time when the city was facing a $100 million budget gap and 11-day furloughs for city employees. The team in The Basement and the Office of Performance Accountability ultimately report to the city’s chief administrative officer, Andy Kopplin. Said Kopplin: “Our philosophy is to use process improvement, technology and data to rebuild the mousetrap of government." Kopplin noted that he looked to the city of Baltimore’s CitiStat program as a model to emulate and where lessons were learned to focus on the “problems on the ground such as street-lights and potholes.”

For obvious reasons, performance management and accountability were urgent for NOLA to rebound from Katrina, one of the nation’s costliest natural disasters, which was compounded by public sector failures from the center of town to Washington, D.C.

The Blightstatus app is a project that has emerged from The Basement in a collaboration between the city and Code for America (this app is now supported by the start-up CivicInsight). This resource helps track over 25,000 blighted addresses that Mayor Landrieu and his team work to return to commerce. In fact, the effort has thus far been so successful it’s been lauded as a national leader in reducing vacant and dilapidated properties.

Open Data
The key point to making data available and accessible is to improve analysis and decision-making options. By opening up the data and processes of government, the community is invited to review this information and suggest improvements, vastly increasing the possible range of choices and potentially valuable insights.

For years, city departments did not collaborate, resulting in unintended consequences and poor customer service. Rather than having independent teams working separately on parts of a larger project, New Orleans now uses data to help align siloed departments to common goals. One example of this is the city’s creation of a One-Stop Shop, a single resource for all city permits and licenses (a mobile app is also available) to improve the customer experience. All users over 10 agencies are now utilizing a shared data system, and progress towards goals are managed in monthly public CustomerServiceSTAT meetings.

The process begins with the identification of a use case, as well as the key decision points where analytics can be useful. This concept is tested, and then scaled. These project ideas come out of the STAT programs. “This process works by focusing on a problem to solve,” said Oliver Wise.

Out of Tragedy Spawns an Opportunity for Innovation
A recent project is now taking this approach in an effort to save lives. The Broadmoor fire that killed five people was a tragedy for New Orleans, even more so because the New Orleans Fire Department offers free smoke alarms for all residents. “The concern is that distributing these smoke alarms is a needle in the haystack problem,” said Wise. “Finding the people most at risk in order to improve the efficiency of distribution was the problem that needed to be solved.”

Using public data sources and incorporating additional administrative data, a model was developed in partnership with and its Chief Analytics Officer Mike Flowers to predict which regions of New Orleans are most at risk. These areas are identified and prioritized for initial outreach and fire alarm distribution. The fire department initiated this work and “NOLAlytics” is being expanded to analyze other public safety and customer service priorities.

The public data from the Smoke Alarm Outreach Program is stored on GitHub for public access. Additionally, the data can be analyzed using the open source statistical software program [R]. New Orleans is also using R to automate the creation of the analyses for its STAT programs -- essentially, download data from the open data portal, produce the visualization in R and then drop into a PowerPoint and interpret in words. In Oliver’s words, “it’s utterly sustainable, free, easy and makes the analysis more credible because it’s backed up by source.” Using open data and open source software makes it possible for anyone in the community to review the program and make recommendations for improvement. It’s clear that cities across the United States could benefit from adopting similar measures that incorporate open data and open government to boost civic innovation and performance management. 

Humility and Hard Work
Every city is unique and context is an imperative. Yet, cities with characteristics and challenges similar to New Orleans may be compelled to pivot as more talent comes to cities with impressive skillsets and an eagerness to shape the future. However, it occurs to me that while there are several things that could be borrowed and applied from New Orleans, the general rule of thumb comes down to humility. For all of the progress, success and resilience, it’s clear that New Orleans performance and accountability teams, innovators and leaders care less about receiving public praise, and more about ensuring high quality outcomes for the community. Wise said that he “continues to pick issues to solve, rather than a capacity to develop a bell or whistle to launch.”
Jeremy M. Goldberg is director of Civic Innovation at Civic Consulting USA. Goldberg served as deputy chief of staff for Civic Innovation in the office of San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. Previously he led the effort to create the Silicon Valley Talent Partnership (SVTP), a public-private partnership organization focused on pro-bono talent sourcing for cities across Silicon Valley. 
Director of San Francisco's Civic Innovation Partnerships
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