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New Ways of Thinking in Nashville

A special (but simple) bus pass helps homeless population get to shelter in extreme weather.

nashville bus
Nashville had a perennial problem that no single agency could solve. “On very cold nights, we have enough beds in our cold weather shelter but oftentimes it is difficult to get people to those beds, particularly for people who are resistant to authority structures – or people who live in encampments,” says Kristine LaLonde, former co-chief of Metropolitan Nashville’s Office of Innovation. Not everyone is downtown and close to a shelter in a metropolitan area that spans more than 500 square miles.

The answer to this problem came in part through Nashville’s work with the City Accelerator. “We now have an extreme weather transit card that we distribute through a network of frontline workers,” says LaLonde. “ It is a card that only is triggered during cold weather that you can use to ride the bus to get to a shelter for free.”

“It made a huge difference in the lives of the people who had them,” remembers Lalonde. “It also gave us some peace of mind that for those folks who were difficult to reach, in those moments we had already reached them ahead of time. It was a small thing but it made a tremendous difference in the lives of those people and in our fabric of the people who respond. They weren’t having to worry about those particular people having access.”

This simple and effective solution helped the city develop and field test new methods and tactics to address homelessness and poverty. This delivered on a promise Nashville made in its original pitch video to join the City Accelerator, where leaders detailed their plans to create three programs to build a culture of innovation:

  • Ideas to Reality, which leverages the city's Office of Innovation and the Entrepreneurship Center to encourage people to take ownership of a problem and do something about it
  • Continuous Improvements for Collective Impact (CICI), which brings leaders from Metro Nashville's 15 departments to find innovative solutions to reduce poverty
  • Data Professionals Network, which helps city staff integrate data and analyses into their everyday work
LaLonde and co-chief Yiaway Yeh served in the administration of Mayor Karl Dean. In the video below, LaLonde reflects on the changes that came as a result of the City Accelerator, noting that much of the city’s work centered around building greater capacity for people to innovate. Some might call it employee empowerment.

LaLonde has high praise for the professionalism and ability of Metro Nashville's career employees to find new solutions to old problems. “It's not just about hiring young people with new ideas,” she says. “There are a lot of people that have been in metro government for 30-plus years who have incredible ideas but have gotten slowed down by the inertia.”

The extreme weather cards also demonstrated the city’s capacity to partner broadly internally – with the homelessness commission, the mayor’s office and the transit authority -- and work in coordination with non-profit frontline organizations doing case work in the community.

LaLonde measures success by the fact that she now seldom hears the previous grumbling of “that’s just government.” The creation of the extreme weather transit pass demonstrates the city’s commitment and capacity to “work together smartly."

Both LaLonde and Yeh have now moved on to new responsibilities outside of municipal government – LaLonde as the associate dean in the College of Leadership & Public Service at Lipscomb University and Yeh as the expansion lead for new initiatives at Alphabet. Both of them view their new duties as a natural extension of the atmosphere of change they helped to initiate while a part of Nashville government.

Just as in the case of Philadelphia, the test now is whether the city’s progress can be sustained and expanded under the administration of Nashville's new mayor, Megan Barry, and the people she has entrusted to move the city forward.

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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