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April 6, 2015 – Governing, By John M. Kamensky

Local governments, their citizens and community interest groups all want better service delivery, and more than ever are looking to technology to make that happen. But technology alone won’t work. What cities that have been recognized for innovations in service delivery have in common is the right governance structures -inclusive approaches and an embrace of partnerships -- to make new technologies successful.

That’s the conclusion of a new report for the IBM Center for the Business of Government that examines a dozen award-winning cities across the country to see what they did that got them recognized -- lessons that others might apply. “Technology is not a shiny new toy; it must be useful and improve people’s lives and business dealings, on either a daily or as-needed basis,” writes the report’s author, Sherri Greenberg of the University of Texas.

Greenberg does identify technological trends that drive cities to undertake innovations, such as the increased use of mobile technology. But more importantly, she identifies ways cities can take advantage of resources both inside and outside the community to help bring innovative ideas to life. A key trend that is common across the cities she examined was that they tended to use more inclusive governance structures to improve services.

San Francisco, for example, created an “Entrepreneur-in-Residence” program that combines city resources and startups to explore ways technology can help make government more participatory and effective. The city held a competition and selected six out of 200 applicants to help develop better citizen engagement approaches and location-based services for citizens.

Kansas City sponsors a Mayor’s Challenge Cabinet where young people compete to be on project teams to improve city policies in areas such as open data, citizen engagement and building a technology roadmap for the city. And Austin, Texas, created a CityWorks Academy that engages citizens with city policies, services and people through a series of 12 weekly classes.

“All of these programs bring constituents into city policy development through a formal process,” Greenberg writes. “Additionally, they are developing new city staff roles, such as chief innovation officers and chief data officers, in an effort to eliminate city department silos.”

Many of the cities that have won recognition for their efforts to improve service delivery also are partnering with a broad array of local and national entities, including foundations, nonprofits, universities and start-up companies.

Foundations: Some fund city initiatives nationwide, while others are city-specific. For example:

  • The Knight Foundation launched its “Knight Cities Challenge” contest to identify innovative ideas to make cities more successful in the areas of talent, engagement and opportunity. Eligible cities are the 26 communities where the Knight brothers own newspapers.
  • While the Kansas City-based Kauffman Foundation supports local-government entrepreneurship programs nationwide, it also funds Kansas City education initiatives and has a Kansas City Civic Team that supports and funds local innovation efforts.
  • The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program selects cities to receive funding for efforts to combat physical, economic and social challenges. To date 67 cities worldwide have been selected.

Nonprofits: A number of nonprofits work closely with cities to improve services through technology and innovation that engages citizens. Code for America, for example, builds open-source software for local governments and organizes people to address complex city challenges; its fellowship program sends technology teams to local governments for a year to partner with officials. Fuse Corps is a nonprofit that partners with mayors and civic leaders to place mid-career professionals in cities for 12-month fellowships to help with innovation efforts.

Universities: Several have been particularly active in partnering with case-study cities on innovation and technology projects: Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation runs a Project on Municipal Innovation which identifies and promotes the replication innovative ideas from across the country. The Ash Center also is home to the Data-Smart City Solutions initiative.

In other cases, universities partner with their host cities, among them the MIT Lab with Boston, New York University’s GovLab with New York City, the University of Chicago with its city and the University of Pennsylvania with its hometown of Philadelphia.

Businesses: Numerous businesses -- particularly technology-focused startups -- work closely with cities on service-delivery innovation efforts. They include Socrata, which helps cities develop their open-data initiatives; Mindmixer, which worked with Kansas City to develop KC Momentum to solicit community input on city services; and NewBrand Analytics, which partnered with Washington, D.C. to develop Grade DC for residents to evaluate city services.

How does this all of this partnering and collaboration happen? Attitude matters. Greenberg writes: “Implementing new governance and technology in cities requires a culture of creativity and collaboration with external outreach, events, and champions.” City-government culture is key, she says, and this is framed by top city leaders who provide the inspiration and permission to innovate.

 

The information above is for general awareness only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Economic Adjustment or the Department of Defense as a whole.

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