One Size Doesn’t Fit All: How Government Approaches Innovation
As recently as a decade ago, it would have been rare — if not entirely unheard of — to find a state or local government in the U.S. that had a robust office dedicated solely to innovation work. While such innovation offices are a bit more common now, they’re still far from wholly standard, and as a result there is quite a bit of variance between those that do exist.
In fact, nearly all of the government innovation offices in the country have a singular identity, with unique qualities that range from how each one was founded, to the way the offices choose their projects, to where they are housed within city hall or within the state government infrastructure. Part of this is inherent to the work; there is no standardized blueprint for discovering new ways to solve old challenges.
As such, Government Technology recently set out to speak with the leaders of several of these government innovation programs, aiming to get a read on where they’ve been, where they are now and where they are headed in the years to come. What emerged was a mosaic of interesting ideas, of ways to function and deep commitments to finding new ways to serve stakeholders and communities.
WHAT'S IN A NAME? BOSTON'S NEW URBAN MECHANICS
Perhaps the first thing that stands out about the innovation track in Boston’s City Hall is its name — New Urban Mechanics, a nickname given to the office by a past mayor that just seemed to fit.
The word “new” being in the title is fitting. When the office was created in 2010, it was among the first of its type in the country. It was founded by Nigel Jacob — who is still with the program, serving under the official title of co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics — and Chris Osgood, who departed from New Urban Mechanics in 2015, staying on with the city as its chief of streets, transportation and sanitation. Looking back now, Jacob remembers there was a process to figuring out what exactly it meant to be new urban mechanics.
There was, essentially, a learning curve to incorporating relatively structured innovation into the business of governing a major American city. It wasn’t a steep or costly learning curve, but it wasn’t without its challenges, owing mostly to the fact that the very idea of why it should exist was so new to local government.
With 11 years of life and counting, New Urban Mechanics now ranks as one of the oldest and most robust innovation offices within any city hall in the country. The list of accomplishments by New Urban Mechanics includes a summer fellows program that continues to usher bright young people into local government, a housing innovation lab and a well-worn pathway between startups and City Hall.
Jacob has a list of lessons learned along the way, lessons that can benefit other cities hoping to replicate the office’s track record and longevity, chief among them being that “how you build is just as important as what you build.”
What this means specifically is that engaging people on the ground — both those who work with the public at city hall as well as members of the public themselves — is absolutely crucial. This connects with another best practice Jacob stresses, which is that all innovation work needs to prioritize building trust, doing so by asking hard questions about whether innovation work is being done for the public, or simply being pushed upon them, regardless of whether it’s something they’ll actually use.
“Trust is just as important inside city hall as it is outside city hall,” Jacob said, noting that as one of the first innovation offices in the country, part of New Urban Mechanics’ early task was explaining its role to other internal agencies, setting itself up as being there to support work rather than there to take anyone’s existing job.
For some time now, the New Urban Mechanics team has numbered between 10 and 15 staff members, making it at once one of the biggest innovation offices in American local government and yet one of the smallest offices within Boston City Hall. In terms of funding, it’s the salaries for staffers that require the bulk of the budget, rather than the work itself, with a substantial amount of New Urban Mechanics funding coming from grants and philanthropies.
As far as what type of projects New Urban Mechanics chooses to take on, Jacob said there is no hard and fast criteria, but there are some common qualities the department looks for, including whether it has the potential to help Boston’s marginalized communities, and whether it can help Boston gain clarity on a particular topic of direction.
In addition, the department also needs to strongly consider the timeline for results. Projects that span years may be interesting, but innovation work requires experimenting and gauging results, something that can’t easily be done if the scope of a project extends too long.
Perhaps the simplest summation of how New Urban Mechanics functions in City Hall can be found in anecdotes Jacob has about the office’s relationship with the mayor. Often, when another department brings an idea to the mayor, the mayor next takes it to New Urban Mechanics.
“More than once the mayor has walked into our office and said, ‘I’m thinking about this,’” Jacob recalled. “‘Can you please take a look at this and let me know what you think?’”
LIVING IN THE FUTURE: UTAH FOCUSES ON THE TECH OF TOMORROW
Utah — which is among the states that do the best job of embracing emerging technologies by any metric — surprisingly enough, does not have an office dedicated specifically to innovation.*
Instead, innovation work was determined to be one of three responsibilities (the other two are enterprise architecture and digital government) when the state first created a chief technology officer position back in 2006. Unlike several cities and some other states, in Utah there is no separate leadership or specialized staff expressly for innovation.
The state, however, has very much built innovation work into the way its government operates. Utah CTO Dave Fletcher — a 30-plus-year veteran of state government work who has held his position since it was first created — shared a glimpse into how the state approaches innovation.
What It Takes to Innovate: Best practices offered by veterans of government innovation
1. How you build is just as important as what you build.
2. Identify stakeholders in advance.
3. Build trust with staff who may fear new practices might cost them their job.
4. Don’t be afraid to start small. Not every project needs to be gigantic, sweeping and grandiose.
5. Benchmark where your jurisdiction stands compared to others and set clear goals.
6. Innovation spawns more innovation, so communicating about innovation activities is a must.
7. Executive sponsorship is critical to sustained support.
8. Commit to transparent review of successes and failures.
Central to the work is an annual review of emerging technologies, during which his office works to identify which of these technologies are likely to be most central to state government. In the past, this has meant a thorough examination of the potential of smartphones back in 2007, soon after the launch of the iPhone. That review led directly to Utah creating a state government app, making it the first state in the country to do so.
More recently, this same annual review process led to the determination that harnessing the power of artificial intelligence will be key to efficient state government in years to come. And — like the iPhone review before it — this has led directly to government action, this time with the creation of Utah’s AI Center of Excellence. This center is already yielding results, sometimes in areas one might not expect, like agriculture. The state was recently able to use AI to manage cattle brand inspections, digitizing a process that used to involve a public servant flipping through a physical binder in search of duplicate shapes.
That center and the smartphone app are just two examples. The state has also led the way with other technologies, including creating a strategy for cloud-based technologies all the way back in 2009, long before every state but Michigan had started to look into it.
What, exactly, does this review process look like? It’s certainly not limited to a few meetings in one office. Part of it includes a roundtable with the state’s IT directors — a group that represents departments throughout the state — to get their input on what emerging technologies stand to be most relevant to their work. From this, the state develops specific use cases.
One key piece of advice that Fletcher has for those engaged in the work is that not every project needs to be gigantic, sweeping and grandiose. In fact, those projects aren’t likely to come without first starting small.
This is especially useful when it comes to financial matters. Innovation work is rarely robustly funded in state government. If stakeholders, however, can show a small innovation project is getting results, getting funding for a larger related project becomes much easier. To this end, Utah also holds monthly digital government product management meetings, where innovation work is shared. Often, the result is that new ideas and new projects are sparked from those in attendance.
“The lesson for me is that innovation spawns more innovation,” Fletcher said. “You can do something small, and then make sure you communicate and share that with a broader audience. You don’t have to bite off huge innovations all at once.”
INSTITUTIONALIZING INNOVATION: FROM LOUISVILLE, K.Y., TO NORTH CAROLINA
The permanence of innovation offices in state and local government has long been fluid. Many of these programs — including the Boston program discussed earlier — were given a sizable boost by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which to date has helped fund local gov Innovation Teams (called i-teams) across North America, from Anchorage, Alaska, to Durham, N.C.
While the i-teams program — which has now expanded to 20 cities across the globe — provides funding for a limited window, the programs contacted for this story all said that once innovation work started in city hall, the institution committed to continuing it, even after the funding had gone.
In Louisville, Ky., in fact, not only did the innovation work continue, all of IT was eventually moved to be led by innovation leader Grace Simrall, whose current title with the city is chief of civic innovation and technology. Simrall said that this was done with the understanding that the entire IT department would embrace innovation as part of its work.
This is somewhat rare within local government, speaking to large commitment to fostering a culture of innovation, which Simrall attributed in no small part to having total buy-in by the city’s top elected official, Mayor Greg Fischer.
That move was made in 2018, following years of productive innovation work in Louisville, much of it done with a focus on public health. One marquee innovation project for the city was AIR Louisville, which as the name implies was focused around air quality. This project, which is almost 10 years old now, saw the city partnering with the private sector to give residents sensors attached to inhalers, in order to gain better, more granular data around where the city needed to work to improve air quality.
Simrall said that while innovation work tends to focus on unique, localized challenges, there are commonalities she’s found within successful innovation projects, including identifying stakeholders in advance, benchmarking where your city stands compared to others, setting a clear goal and committing to discussing any failures in depth, which bolsters transparency and helps to avoid continuing projects once they’ve met a logical end.
The Innovation Center for the state of North Carolina is a different sort of program, having started its life as a physical space for testing equipment and tech platforms, said Deanté Tyler, director of the North Carolina Innovation Center. For example, the center tested chatbot technology back in 2016, seeing potential for automation of routine, repetitive tasks performed by staff.
The center has since evolved to be both a space and a program, complete with two full-time staff members and occasional short-term interns from nearby academic institutions. Housed within the state’s Department of Information Technology, the Innovation Center will celebrate its eight-year anniversary in the fall.
A lot of the work the center does involves listening to innovation-minded folks from various state agencies, working to help them solve their challenges as well as to complete projects that they pitch to the center.
The work of the center and like-minded programs remains a work in progress, vastly different from other agencies with mostly the same missions for decades, such as transportation or public health.
“A lot of other areas in state government have decades and decades of best practices to build upon,” Tyler said, “Whereas we have really started from scratch.”
*Just after this issue went to press, Utah announced the appointment of its first chief innovation officer.
This article first appeared on govtech.com.