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Getting Past the Innovation One-off

By James Anderson, Bloomberg Philanthropies Government Innovation Team

In pulling together this week’s Mayors Innovation Summit, Philadelphia Mayor and U.S. Conference of Mayors President Michael Nutter is responding to exploding interest from city leaders to create a radically new kind of local government: one that’s consistently good at embracing new ideas.

The desire to do things differently is why the mayors in Riverside (CA), Kansas City (MO), and Nashville are among the most recent to appoint Chief Innovation Officers. It’s why Code for America, the San Francisco-based organization that connects young technologists with city halls to spur innovation, can barely keep up with demand from cities.

Of course we already see a lot of innovation coming out of America’s city halls. Creative, dedicated public servants solve problems and tweak existing services on a routine basis.

But when you look closely, you find that many of these gains happen in spite of the prevailing culture. Savvy bureaucrats find clever ways to reach across organizational silos to make things happen. They scrape together private funds to launch a pilot. Or they leverage a crisis – and the self-examination these moments can create – to advance new thinking.

While that’s good, it’s clear that relying on opportunism, bureaucratic heroism, and luck to drive the innovation agenda isn’t good enough. There’s too much at stake. Cities today are being called on to do more with less – and these trends will likely accelerate.

So how do we get beyond innovation one-offs to create a culture of persistent innovation? That was the very topic we tackled at a convening hosted by Mayor Landrieu in New Orleans earlier this week.

New Orleans is one of five cities with which Bloomberg Philanthropies has partnered to test and refine the Innovation Delivery model. (The four other cities are Atlanta, Chicago, Memphis, and Louisville.) It’s a model that helps city leaders develop and deliver innovation in priority areas.

The process begins by using data to define the scope of the problem(s) to be solved. Various idea generation techniques – like design thinking, rapid prototyping, and scanning the horizon for ideas that work – help generate a list of bold but attainable ideas. Implementation planning comes next, with a strong focus on getting all partners aligned on goals. Finally, the model focuses on implementation, enabling staff to track where they are and adjust course over time.

To maximize the effect, the model creates an active role for the mayor – using the bully pulpit to build support, secure resources, remove barriers, and celebrate success along the way.

Innovation, here, isn’t some mystical process. It requires neither rocket science nor light bulb moments. Instead it’s about a set of sequential steps and techniques that, when implemented with fidelity, help city halls come up with better ideas more often. It’s about increasing the hit rate for innovation – while recognizing that some degree of failure is inevitable (and important).

Nearly 18 months into their work, the teams have developed a ton of practical experience with the model – and an impressive list of accomplishments to boot.

Chicago, for example, is rethinking its entire approach to encouraging small business. Already they’ve reduced license types from 117 to 49 and shortened the average waiting time to process restaurant operating licenses from 65 to 21 days – efficiencies that can make a world of difference for cash strapped new business owners. Atlanta and Louisville are driving aggressive efforts to improve various city services and the consumer experience, while Memphis tackles place-based economic growth strategies. It was especially inspiring to hear Mayor Landrieu talk about the progress his team’s made implementing new approaches and creating a coordinated citywide strategy to address his city’s most urgent challenge – the murder rate.

We’re tracking lessons learned and collecting tips from the five cities on ways to strengthen the model. The goal is to share a practitioner-tested 2.0 version for Innovation Delivery with cities in late 2013. Spreading effective strategies between cities is a core part of our mission at Bloomberg Philanthropies; Mike Bloomberg believes it is an essential way to increase innovation and impact.

As this week’s gatherings in Philadelphia and New Orleans show that there’s demand from cities for more and better – and more pragmatic – information on how to formalize innovation in city hall. And we’re excited to partner with them to build and sustain a new culture of municipal innovation that goes from ad hoc to everyday.