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3 Tips for Today’s Government Innovator: Lessons Learned from the Mayors Challenge

Despite tackling incredibly different social challenges, government innovators often find themselves in need of useful tips to take on tough issues in cities. After working with winners and finalists for the European Mayors Challenge, Innovation Unit Chair Paul Roberts shares emerging insights about common challenges to implementing bold innovations.

Engage Citizens: Building a Social Movement

Tackling complex social issues means putting citizens at the heart of any solution, both listening to and understanding their needs, but also actively harnessing citizen support, skills and passion to improve community life.

The Challenge: User engagement is not a quick fix; it is hard.  Cities within the Mayors Challenge community observe that while citizens like to participate, it is common to encounter a degree of skepticism.

Tips on how to overcome skepticism:

  • Segment your audience and recognize motivations for involvement in your project may differ.
  • Think about what those different motivations are and how you can create distinct opportunities that appeal to them.
  • Provide people with a framework, such as an outline process, structure, or timeline, so that they can see what they are contributing to, when and how.

Create Multi-Disciplinary Teams: A New Type of Partnership

Innovation projects that are successful in tackling system challenges, such as social isolation, require knitting together people with a range of skills from a variety of different backgrounds.

The Challenge: It can be difficult to generate productive activity around a broad set of priorities when resources are scarce and pressure on teams to deliver against individual priorities is high.  This is often reinforced by organizational structures.

Tips on how to bring teams together from different departments or contexts:

  • Create energy. Work with those that are interested to generate momentum and others will follow. You might find those early allies and co-conspirators in unusual quarters.
  • Use intrigue to draw people in. If something looks and feels unusual and exciting, it will act as a magnet, sparking people’s interest and draw them towards you.
  • Create both formal and informal spaces for people to convene around the work.

Embed New Ways of Working: Culture Change and Professional Identity

Across the public sector, providers and professionals are seeking to change the nature of government’s relationship with people and communities.

The Challenge: Changing practice is not easy.  Different forms of interaction, where government not only asks citizens what they think but, more radically, give them a practical role in testing and delivering new ideas is the start of changing that relationship.

Tips on how to adopt and embed new approaches:

  • Prototyping represents a set of tools and methods that allows public servants to work directly with communities to test new ideas.
  • Build in feedback loops that connect this work to city administration structures and processes.

The European Mayors Challenge winners are challenging entrenched assumptions about the way in which local public services should operate. We’re looking forward to sharing more insights from the community as they continue to make progress on the implementation of their winning ideas.

Roberts’ full article in the British local government publication ‘The Municipal Journal’ can be found here. To watch a video from a recent Mayors Challenge convening where participants discussed shared challenges, click here.

About Innovation Unit:
Innovation Unit is the innovation partner for public services. Through a collaborative of designers, researchers, public service leaders and practitioners, Innovation Unit works with ambitious people who lead, deliver and use public services. Innovation Unit has worked with cities throughout Europe and the U.S. to design and implement learning networks to scale innovation.  Visit their website for more information: or follow them on twitter at @innovation_unit and @iu_localgov