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Breaking Through Barriers to Innovation in Local Government

Through the City Accelerator, Louisville, Ky., Nashville, Tenn., and Philadelphia are adapting how they do business in order to produce materially different results.

Imagine a future in which America’s local governments are renowned for innovation.

Across the country and the world, local governments are striving to break through obsolete ways of working to address the challenges of the 21st century, especially on issues facing low-income residents. Here in the United States, economic opportunity in cities remains elusive for many -- a fact made all the more significant as the nation heads towards a future in which a majority of its residents are people of color.  Around the world, cities are growing at astonishing rates, bringing with that growth new challenges in terms of environmental sustainability, economic opportunity and quality of life. In a time of such rapid change, our local government colleagues are eager to adapt how they do business in order to produce materially different results.  

Approaching this change of the status quo requires fundamental shifts to the culture of government itself. Bureaucracy has its own center of gravity, and well-conceived policies can skew the way they are implemented instead of focusing on their intended beneficiaries. Government culture may also promote policies that are considered “sure proof”, but do not produce maximum impact for residents, and avoid ideas that are out of the box, even if they can produce great rewards. Balancing between sweeping change and inaction can leave little room for experimentation.

The good news is that cities are actively chipping away at these barriers to innovation. In Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer has sought to build a local government culture akin to that of a high-performing business, rooted in the value of compassion. In Nashville, Tenn., the City’s innovation team partners with the Nashville Entrepreneur Center to train human services staff in leading innovation techniques. The participants in turn become ambassadors and skill-builders within their departments. In Philadelphia, the city is experimenting with different forms of outreach to seniors in order to boost enrollment in taxpayer benefits. As these practices reach the core of government operations, the potential for impact is profound.

Each of these cities is participating in the first cohort of the City Accelerator, a $3 million program of Living Cities supported by the Citi Foundation. This cohort focuses on making innovation course-of-business and is led by Nigel Jacob, co-founder of the Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, one of the world’s leading local government innovation practices.

We are pleased to release a guide that we’ve developed to make it easier for cities to build enduring cultures and practices of innovation. Built on and inspired by many of the underlying successes of efforts like New Urban Mechanics, Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Delivery Teams and more, the implementation guide offers practical action steps and helpful examples for local government officials to adapt and adopt. We will update the guide as we learn from the work of the City Accelerator cohort and build out additional content to help cities implement what we learn. 

We are inspired by the leadership on innovation that is virally spreading throughout the United States -- including in the City Accelerator cohort cities -- and pleased to be able to contribute to the growing body of knowledge local governments can use to innovate as a matter of course. We invite feedback and reactions from readers.

Download the Implementation Guide here.

Ben Hecht is the president and CEO of Living Cities, which works to re-engineer obsolete public systems and connect low-income people and underinvested places to opportunity.
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