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Riding the Second Wave of Civic Innovation

Public-private collaborations for local-government innovation are spreading. There are some best practices for making them work.

Innovation and entrepreneurship in local government increasingly require mobilizing talent from many sectors and skill sets. Fortunately, the opportunities for nurturing cross-pollination between the public and private sectors have never been greater, thanks in large part to the growing role of organizations such as Bayes Impact, Code for America, Data Science for Social Good and Fuse Corps.

Indeed, there's reason to believe that we might be entering an even more exciting period of public-private collaboration. As one local-government leader recently put it to me when talking about the critical mass of pro-bono civic-innovation efforts taking place across the San Francisco Bay area, "We're now riding the second wave of civic pro-bono and civic innovation."

As an alumni of Fuse Corps' executive fellows program, I'm convinced that the opportunities initiated by it and similar organizations are integral to civic innovation. Fuse Corps brings civic entrepreneurs with experience across the public, private and nonprofit sectors to work closely with government employees to help them negotiate project design, facilitation and management hurdles. The organization's leadership training emphasizes "smallifying" -- building innovation capacity by breaking big challenges down into smaller tasks in a shorter timeframe -- and making "little bets" -- low-risk actions aimed at developing and testing an idea.

Since 2012, I have managed programs and cross-sector networks for the Silicon Valley Talent Partnership. I've witnessed a groundswell of civic entrepreneurs from across the region stepping up to participate in discussions and launch rapid-prototyping labs focused on civic innovation.

Cities across the nation are creating new roles and programs to engage these civic start-ups. They're learning that what makes these projects, and specifically civic pro-bono programs, work best is a process of designing, building, operationalizing and bringing them to scale. If you're setting out to create such a program, here's a short list of best practices:

Assets: Explore existing internal resources and knowledge to understand the history, departmental relationships and overall functions of the relevant agencies or departments. Develop a compendium of current service/volunteer programs.

City policies/legal framework: Determine what the city charter, city attorney's office or employee-relations rules and policies say about procurement, collective bargaining and public-private partnerships.

Leadership: The support of the city's top leadership is especially important during the formative stages of a civic-innovation program, so it's important to understand how the city's form of government will impact the program. For example, in a "strong mayor" government the ability to make definitive decisions on a public-private collaboration may be unlikely to face the same scrutiny as it might under a "council/mayor" government.

Cross-departmental collaboration: This is essential. Without the support of city staff across departments, innovation projects are unlikely to take off. Convening a "tiger team" of individuals who are early adopters of such initiatives is important step. Ultimately, city staffers best understand the needs and demands of their departments or agencies.

Partners from corporations and philanthropy: Leveraging existing partnerships will help to bring together an advisory group of cross-sector leaders and executives to participate in the early stages of program development.

Business and member associations: For the Silicon Valley Talent Partnership, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group has been instrumental in advocating for pro-bono volunteerism with the cities of Fremont, San Jose and Santa Clara.

These civic-innovation efforts provide new opportunities for ingenuity from innovators within and outside of city government. I'm eager to see where this next wave of public-private collaboration will take all of us and to share more of what I'm learning along the way.

VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

Director of San Francisco's Civic Innovation Partnerships
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