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When Innovation Isn't Glamorous

We need to make the case for the glitzless but still innovative initiatives.

Last week, the Governing article “City Pilot Uses Late Water Bills to Help the Poor” described the National League of Cities’ LIFT-UP initiative, a two-year pilot project aimed to improve utility payment rates while helping citizens achieve economic stability.  

The plan is intriguing given the recent controversy surrounding Detroit’s decision -- and subsequent retraction, at least temporarily -- to shut off the water of delinquent customers. But it’s also interesting because it represents a form of innovation that often doesn’t get enough credit in a society accustomed to increasingly savvy technological inventions that promise to do things better, faster and cheaper. 
 
The NLC project relies on a simple logical conclusion: “If someone is in debt to a municipal authority, be it the courts, hospitals or utilities, it’s probably a good guess they’re having a much bigger issue,” says Denise Belser, a program manager at NLC. In this way, the five cities involved with the NLC pilot will use late water bills as a way to identify citizens in need -- and find ways to help them.
 
It’s not glamorous, but it’s innovative in a nitty-gritty, we’re going to roll-up our sleeves, get to work and solve this problem sort of way.
 
Innovation is often thought of in terms of a new digital technology or exciting ideas for entrepreneurial adventures -- but few think of innovation and how it applies to less exciting attempts at overcoming challenges like finding new ways to address poverty and homelessness. This type of innovation is difficult, not as colorful and often doesn’t end up in the headlines. 
 
City Accelerator is expanding the conversation to include the darker and humbling dimensions of urban life to help answer this question: How do we make things better for everybody, and not just the smart, young and technically literate? 
 
In helping to answer that question, below are some words of advice that address some of the challenges municipalities face. 
 
Leadership Should Capitalize on Rewarding Work
One of the barriers to innovation in our collective efforts to relieve poverty is simply the fact that the work is not fun, which can limit a community service profession in attracting creative minds. The corporate world of entrepreneurial activity and the high-tech environment is magnetic and compelling as a career path, making it a tough competitor in the contest for passionate and gifted individuals. But working on innovative projects that help those most in need is rewarding. Municipal leaders should not only tout this fact, but ensure employees are consistently seeing the results of their work to stay motivated.
 
Helping Hands Need to Hold Hands
It is a little-known secret outside the inner circle of those involved in charitable purposes that organizations trying to help the poor sometimes don’t play well together. Several years ago, I was disappointed when I found that agencies with the same goal and purpose -- in this case, reducing homelessness -- often did not coordinate their efforts or even communicate effectively.
 
Organizations can sometimes think of a field of work as their own territory or even the people they serve as their exclusive client list. While battles over turf or even outright jealousy inevitably distract from and cripple the cause, in talking with officials in other cities, I found that such seemingly odd and counterproductive behavior is frequently the norm rather than the exception. The reality is there are such overwhelming amounts of work to do in this area that an absence of communication and collaboration can lead to duplication of help in some areas and complete lack of help in others.  
 
Everyone Must Realize Change Makes Progress Possible
Machiavelli has an oft-quoted phrase: "Nothing is more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things." Those of us who have spent time laboring in the depths of bureaucracy will attest that people do not accept change very well -- even change for the better.  
 
Even when change has been initiated, it's tough to keep things from drifting back to the old days and old ways. Years ago, when I was managing a city public works department, I was surprised to find that employees would resist new and better types of equipment. When operating technology evolved from standard transmissions to automatic gearboxes in garbage trucks, some of the veteran drivers did not make the transition quickly or quietly. Only when the older model types of machines were no longer available were we able to move along and fully implement the change.  
 
In both examples, change might be needed yet change is not entirely welcome. To implement change we must go against human nature and promote disruption as necessary and desirable. Sometimes, we must even do something drastic like the early-world explorers who would burn their ships after arriving to ensure there was no going back.
 
The municipalities participating in City Accelerator are doing a good job of increasing the appeal of not-so-glamorous innovations. They are succeeding in making public service an attractive option for those minds looking for a career that is both exciting and rewarding. In similar fashion, cities in the first Cohort are experimenting with new ideas and methods that might begin to disrupt those old ways of doing business and discourage those who cling to the past. Some of the best new practices are so radically different that they just might succeed in making it difficult for naysayers to argue that “We’ve always done it this way.”
 
The City Accelerator program is shining a bright light into a dark corner of urban life.  Things are changing and the promise of more change to come -- positive change -- is fueling a new sense of optimism. 
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.
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