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Innovation Guide Promotes New Culture of Civic Exploration

The guide's action-oriented framework supports a spirit of adventure and change in urban communities.

As I write this blog post, President Obama is praising my city, Chattanooga, Tenn., and hailing it as a “tornado of innovation.” Speaking in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Obama spoke about citywide, high-speed fiber networks – currently only available in a handful of cities – and the opportunities superfast Internet access provides a community.

The same day, Chattanooga announced the creation of a 140-acre innovation district that incorporates much of the city’s central business district, anchored by a 10-story building that will include key elements to support and enhance a fertile environment of creativity, invention and entrepreneurial activity. Chattanooga seems to have discovered a successful formula for innovation. However, innovation is a constantly moving target that requires consistent attention and effort. Inside Chattanooga city government, the chief innovation officer resigned several months ago and the position remains unfilled.

While it can most certainly be done, it is often more difficult to create and sustain a spirit of innovation inside government than in the private sector.

With that in mind, as a city planner and politician with more than four decades in public service, here is my view of the recently released City Accelerator Guide for Embedding Innovation in Local Government.

Author Nigel Jacob, co-founder of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston and Urban Technologist-in-Residence at Living Cities, sets the stage well with the startlingly true statement: "Government is often thought of as a place where good ideas go to die." He accurately assesses the difficulty by noting that effective governing involves "wickedly complex problems." In spite of popular beliefs about the ineptness and inefficiency of bureaucracy, it's not simple and it's not easy.

Secondly, the guide underscores the need to establish an accurate and objective base of information from which to begin. Since government exists in a political environment, it is difficult to cut through the clutter of insincere praise, exaggerated claims and banal platitudes to determine what really matters to the public. I could not help but think of the popular reality television series "Undercover Boss." Among the parade of private executives, the show has featured at least a few mayors from major cities that were able to disguise themselves and literally move through the crowd to get a firsthand, unvarnished view of what some in the public – as well as their own employees – were thinking. While such research measures might be ideal but impractical, the guide strongly recommends ways to employ elements of sociology and the science of marketing to identify avenues for innovation.

Another major topic the guide addresses is the problem of risk. I have discussed this issue previously in some of my Innovation Perspectives blog posts (see here and here), but it cannot be over emphasized and bears repeating. Government employees and elected officials are exceptionally risk averse and any plans for innovation must take this cold hard fact into consideration. Early in my public service career I worked with a grizzled old pro who often spoke with great humor and colorful animation of those who attempted "courageous and career-ending" measures to stimulate change. The inconvenient truth is that the public can have a long memory and a short fuse – a recipe that makes it unforgiving when it comes to failure. (Off with their heads!) Since government business is everybody's business, I believe this is a greater problem in the public sector than in private enterprise. The guide does an excellent job underscoring and suggesting ways to deal with risk and the inevitable failures.

From a practical standpoint, the guide provides a pragmatic, action-oriented framework for creating and supporting the new spirit of innovation in local government. Perhaps more significantly, it begins to create an accepted lexicon of terminology, a common language for discussing and comparing efforts across the United States. Communication among and between participating communities is vital in increasing and expanding the spirit of innovation. Even when taking different paths and sometimes disagreeing, it is important that everyone is speaking the same language. The guide is more than a pep talk packaged within a brief "how to" manual, it offers a new culture of civic exploration and adventure.

More than just innovation – it’s about breakthrough innovation. The guide points out that normal, incremental change is not enough; we must set the stage for great leaps forward and this attitude and enhanced capacity must become the new normal (to risk using a presently overused phrase). Considering the changing world we live in and the new challenges facing government, who can question this imperative?

How to make all of this stick is, perhaps, the most significant unfinished business not yet fully addressed by the guide. Another veteran public servant, a representative from one of the current City Accelerator cohort communities, has a name for it – an unpronounceable acronym: "RGEFY,” short for "Reinventing Government Every Four Years." In other words, every time there is a change due to election of new officials or the retirement and appointment of new leadership, there is often significant upheaval. More importantly, if the spirit of innovation and the innovations that have been recently accomplished in a community are not thoroughly embedded and ingrained in the fabric of local government, there is an unfortunate tendency to reverse course and return to the comfortable – even if they are outdated or discredited – ways of the past. Public employees are durable and persistent and some can be unalterably resistant to change.

Finally, the guide leaves the door open for amendment and further refinement. Jacob describes the current version as, "a first iteration of a living document." This must not be viewed as just some idle phrase or as a casual invitation to participate.  There are exciting and important movements underway in local governments across America.  The City Accelerator cohort communities might be playing a very public role in the ongoing discussion, but many more minds and voices must be added to the mix.

The guide closes with the simple exclamation: "So let us know how it goes!"

Let's not disappoint.

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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