5 Ways to Drive Innovation in City Government

June 16, 2014

By Molly Coleman

Regardless of location or demographics, cities across the country are being asked to do more with less as federal and state funding decreases. Through creative innovations – including new ideas, new ways of doing business and new technologies – city leaders can stay ahead of the curve to maintain a high quality of life for residents.

At the 2014 NLC University Leadership Summit taking place August 13-16 in Silicon Valley, city leaders will participate in an intensive leadership development workshop to develop the leadership skills and strategic methods to drive innovation in their communities.

Led by national experts, Stephen Goldsmith of Harvard University and Neil Kleiman of the NYU Wagner Innovation Labs, participants will hone the forward-thinking vision expected of all municipal officials, while also developing the practical skills and approaches to make that vision into reality.

How Cities Are Driving Innovation


Local leaders across the country recognize that the ideas driving innovation in city government can come from many sources, including municipal staff and residents. Stephen Goldmsith and his team at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard have identified five distinct models cities utilize to elevate their ideas into improved city process and services.

1.     Use Performance Metrics

Cities from Somerville, Mass., to Louisville, Ky., are making use of performance metrics, focusing squarely on outcomes, not process, to improve service delivery. In Louisville, the Public Works department, in coordination with LouieStat, has reduced the rate of injuries among employees from 31% to fewer than 15%, simply though implementing a department-wide stretching regiment at the beginning of each shift. In doing so, the department has seen a drastic cut in the number of missed days—and as result—improved the quality and consistency of service delivery.

2.     Empower Employees

Employee empowerment unleashes the creative capacity within municipal government by equipping staff at all levels to find and promote opportunities to drive efficiency or produce better city services. In Denver, Colorado, animal shelter employees who were trained on LEAN principles at the city’s Peak Academy were able to independently standardize the data entry process when animals were admitted to the shelter. Not only did this innovation save the city nearly $40,000 annually, but it allowed for more accurate identification of animals, helping owners to better locate their lost pets.

3.     Create a Network of Partners

Networks of diverse partners can bring multiple perspectives together in ways that encourage innovation within and outside of municipal government. In Rancho Cordova, California, the city council works hand-in-hand with the Cordova Community Council, an organization uniting non-profits and volunteers from around the city. Through this partnership with the community council, the city is able to play host to numerous events and activities throughout the year that promote economic development and an overall improvement in the city’s image. By looking outside of the government, Rancho Cordova is encouraging an innovative, cost-effective approach to providing city services.

4.     Engage Local Stakeholders

Policy reforms to engage stakeholders – both residents and service providers – in new ways can surface ideas that may not otherwise have come to light. For example, a variety of cities are experimenting with participatory budgeting initiatives or opening up city data to foster this kind of engagement. In Vallejo, California, for example, participatory budgeting led to a variety of resident-inspired ideas, from small business loans to community gardens.

5.     Tackle Structural Issues

Cities are driving innovation through designated staff or staff teams focused on tackling structural and cultural challenges. Whether termed innovation delivery teams, offices of new urban mechanics, or enterprise development offices, these designated units have strong mayoral or city manager support and cut across traditional agency boundaries. For instance, in Memphis, the mayor’s innovation delivery team launched an initiative in 2012 focused on promoting neighborhood economic vitality by focusing on a simple mantra of: “clean it, activate it, sustain it.” In three pilot neighborhoods, the team eliminated physical barriers to investment, deployed small-scale and temporary changes to inject energy and spur new ideas, and then made successful elements permanent through local policy.

How You Can Drive Innovation


Participants in the NLC University Leadership Summit will go beyond the theoretical by looking at how to implement and sustain innovation in local government, including:

  • Leadership support
  • Time and permission for city public employees to innovate
  • Ability to prioritize and focus on the outcomes
  • Strong coalitions or teamS
  • Resident engagement
  • Alternative funding sources
  • Skills training and networking
  • Communication and education regarding innovation
  • Policy change

By addressing these issues and working with fellow elected officials, city staff, and innovation experts, participants in the Leadership Summit will walk away with practical steps to do more with less, and vastly improve city services.

About the Speaker: Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government, Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Director of Data-Smart City Solutions. Prior to his appointment at Harvard, he served as the Deputy Mayor of New York and the Mayor of Indianapolis, and in 2000, he was the chief domestic policy advisor to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. Goldsmith is the author of “The Power of Social Innovation,” as well as a number of books on local government.

 

About the Speaker: Dr. Neil Kleiman, Director of the Wagner Innovation Labs at New York University, has spent his career advocating for innovative leadership. Prior to joining NYU, Kleiman served as the Director of Policy and Research at Living Cities, where he worked with the Kennedy School at Harvard University to develop the Project on Municipal Innovations. Additionally, he worked as the founding director of the Center for an Urban Future, championing innovative ideas for municipal governments. Kleiman also serves as Deputy Executive Director of Policy, Research, and Evaluation for the newly launched National Resource Network.