Taking on the Big Challenges: A Conversation with Doug McGowen

August 1, 2014

By Molly Coleman

Doug McGowen is the Director of the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team in Memphis, Tenn., and a retired commanding officer of Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Mr. McGowen will present at the NLC University Leadership Summit, August 13-16 in Santa Clara, California. Register now!

National League of Cities: How did the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team come into existence, and what are its objectives?

Doug McGowen: The Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team was born of a generous grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies issued in 2011. Mayor Bloomberg understood the lack of capacity to make big, bold change, because cities are so tied up doing the day-to-day service delivery that they often lack the capacity to focus on innovation.

The vision for the team is that we take on one or two big challenges, chosen by the mayor, at a time, get a really deep understanding of the problem, and then work with partners to develop innovative solutions. Our goal is to apply a solution that treats the underlying problem, not just the symptoms. We test drive potential solutions, working with city partners who can carry them forward, and then are off to the next challenge. To start, the mayor asked us to look at neighborhood economic vitality and gun violence.

NLC: Where did you get to with the neighborhood economic vitality [NEV], and when did you decide that it was ready to be handed off to other partners?

DM: We recognized that there are two paths to work on for NEV. First, there are long-term policy changes that need to be made about how we invest in our city and some legislative things that have to be addressed. So we started that body of work, and have handed it off to partners to carry forward, as it requires more long-term involvement.

On the other side, we had to do some immediate things to generate results, so we came up with a strategy called “Clean It, Activate It, Sustain It.” Through this, we first eliminated the physical barriers to investment, including blight and crime. Next, we activated specific points in the neighborhood (a key intersection or commercial corridor) with a temporary activation that draws attention and extended the art of the possible. You clean it up, occupy the store fronts with temporary retailors, and then program it with some things that would draw people down there. Essentially what you’re doing is taking that neighborhood and staging it like you would your house, letting people experience it in a whole new way. And then you follow that up with a retail incubator, and focus on improvement grants which bring businesses into permanent spaces.

Since these were new concepts, a critical piece of our thinking had to be: “Who can carry these forward?” Who will deploy this to other neighborhoods? Who will take the retail incubator model and bring it to a different neighborhood? And who will take the mobile retail incubator, and take that to the next level?

One of the things that I would say is that in this innovation work, you start with engaging stakeholders and developing some good ideas initially, but once you start doing the work, even more ideas are born, more energy is unlocked. That’s really what you’re doing, is unlocking the energy of people and connecting them to a way to actually make something happen in their neighborhood.

Ultimately, we’re not the gun violence team, and we’re not the NEV team. We’re the Innovation Delivery Team. Our goal is never to be a long-term owner of anything, but to keep understanding the fastest solution to a problem, incubate and demonstrate, working with and adding capacity to key-partners who can sustain it going forward.

NLC: Can you tell us more about your work on gun violence?

DM: On the gun violence work, one of the missing pieces in Memphis was professionally trained street intervention workers. These are not police or teachers or anything, but who are guys of the streets who you equip to do three kinds of work. They find young at-risk men and connect with them to services that they need. They respond if there’s an act of violence and make sure that retaliation doesn’t occur. And they understand what “beefs” are occurring, and broker the truce before the violence happens. Those are things that nobody can do unless they have the credibility in the streets.

What we’ve learned is that you’ve got to be adaptable. If we’re not adaptable and flexible, then it really wouldn’t be innovation. We’ve also be piloting a similar team to be at the hospitals to help prevent retaliatory violence.

NLC: What are the primary obstacles that your team has faced over the last few years?

DM: You are not immediately of the city. You have to build that track record of rapport with the division directors. You may come in with no track record of performance, so getting people to trust that you are an ally is a challenge. You have to prove that by your performance.

The second challenge has to do with the change. There has to be some impetus for change. Because while the Innovation Delivery Team brings the capacity, this is also extra work for city employees. This means that you have to work extra hard to win their partnership. At the end of the day, city employees have streets to pave and parks to run, so we have to show that we’re getting something done in order for them to want change.

The third challenge is sharing credit. The press wanted to give a lot of credit to the Innovation Delivery Team, but the city employees have been doing this stuff for a long time without anybody writing a news article about their work. Suddenly our team comes, and we’re getting this great press. It’s a delicate balancing act. Some of this stuff is happening because the team added capacity, but the work is getting done by the city.

NLC: How are you measuring your outcomes, and how are you using those measurements to shape the work that you’re doing?

DM: We set very specific goals in each issue area. We said we’re going to reduce gun violence in the city by 10% overall, and we’re going to pick two small geographic areas and reduce the gun violence in those areas by 20%. We used violent crime data to measure our progress against those targets. And then we had subordinate targets for each initiative. So for our street intervention team, how many youths are in case management? What are the outcomes with respect to graduation and incarceration rates? If you’re going to have a police clergy conference, how many clergy are trained in the specific techniques? If you’re going to have a data-driven policing event around guns, what is the drop in the rate of gun arrests in that area? Most importantly, we have a quarterly stock-take with the mayor, where we go in and assess how we’re progressing towards each of our goals.

We’re on target to have a 13% reduction in gun violence across the city. We’re going to have a 50% reduction in one of our focus areas, but in the other, we’re only at about a 14.5% reduction. Because we’re measuring on a continuing basis and having these discussions, we’re able to redeploy some efforts to that second area to try to get us to goal.

So measuring outcomes does shape the work that we do, and helps to guide our strategy. We’re using the data to make real-time changes in how we deploy things and determine new strategies. And then with NEV, we gauge vacancy rates, new business starts, tax revenue, and those kinds of things, to determine if we’re getting appreciable change.

NLC: What is the long-term vision for the Innovation Delivery Team? Is this a part of the city for the foreseeable future?

DM: In October of this year we come up against the end of the grant that Mayor Bloomberg gave us to incubate the team, so we have to figure out how we sustain this going forward. Recently, our city council voted to approve a grant that will help sustain the work of the team through the next year. And then we have some local partners who have expressed interested in seeing this continue, and we are working to get commitments from them to sustain the team going forward. So the model we are working towards is to sustain operations with a mix of public and private sector funds.