“Innovation” is surely one of this decade’s defining buzzwords, and quite possibly one that risks being discarded due to overuse or abuse. Think “paradigm shift,” “reengineering,” “IT transformation,” or “bottom-up budgeting” for the nineties; or “globalization” and its attendant “outsourcing,” or capitalizing on the “information society” for the aughts; everyone claims to wrestle with them in all the right ways but ultimately to questionable ends.

So before “innovation” lands on the trash heap of overused and under-realized concepts, we tapped our collective experience with cities across the U.S. to define what it – innovation – actually means for local government, especially targeting the results we might expect to see if government is in fact innovating.

Besides overuse, the term innovation suffers from the equally vexing problem of being ill-defined, to the point that we lack a common sense of value or a shared standard. The same might be said about “good government,” especially when cynicism about it and regard for political institutions reaches all-time low ratings due to gridlock, partisan bickering and breakdown in institutional ability to address everyday concerns.

Government performance, then, becomes all the more important. Government that gets results and helps us solve daily problems still matters. And we have more information, more transparency and better tools to know whether government is getting anything done. But we’ve gone far too long without attempting to measure or assess what makes one city government high-performing and another less so.

In the late 1990s, Governing magazine provided letter grades to cities and states across America based on their performance in four key public service categories. Under the moniker Government Performance Project, the multi-year, multi-party evaluation project tried to create public interest in government performance and encouraged public officials to work more effectively by learning from one another.

But that was then and this is now, and even frameworks need to be refreshed or maybe in this case, reborn.

The fact is, innovation is really the key to performance in an era of scarce resources – public or private – as well as to the consistent evolution and improvement needed to achieve better outcomes in a time of rapid change. Most important, though, are the areas where government still plays the biggest role – in making systems-change and bringing to scale successful approaches that will get dramatically better results for low-income people, faster.

To achieve fundamentally better results, here’s what must happen in innovative municipal governments:

  • Long-term and ambitious visions and planning;
  • Non-traditional partnering outside of City Hall and breaking down siloes and walls inside it;
  • Truly fresh approaches to engaging residents;
  • Intention and inventiveness around the changing demographics of our cities and tackling persistent racism and other disparities in outcomes;
  • Smart fiscal planning and execution, and finding new ways to pay for things;
  • Creatively using the full potential of the biggest municipal resource available – public employees; and,
  • Having and sharing data, yes, but also firmly factoring it into performance and transparency in rigorous ways.

In other words, high-performing governments would be: dynamically planned, broadly partnered, resident-involved, race-informed, smartly resourced, employee-engaged and data-driven.

Resource Document: Equipt to Innovate Field Guide
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This summer, our two organizations – Living Cities and Governing – introduced a new framework that defines high-performing governments, and describes what they look like when they are equipped to innovate. Called Equipt to Innovate™, the seven elements that make up the framework are expressed as outcomes that would suggest a municipal government is in good position to tackle the toughest issues, and ultimately achieve better results for low-income people and all city residents.

In the spirit of the Government Performance Project, Equipt to Innovate builds on the joint work done by Living Cities and Governing on the City Accelerator over the last two years, and enhances a partnership of two organizations with 25- and 29-year municipal histories, respectively. If the City Accelerator is about experimentation and interventions, Equipt provides an enterprise framework for planning what comes next. The framework also aligns with the mission of the Governing Institute, which is supporting state and local government officials with the ideas, tools and programs to achieve better government outcomes.

Central to the Equipt framework is a commitment to be race-informed. Governments must be more intentional about confronting the dimension of race as they attempt to grapple with challenges like poverty, inequality, education, health and public safety. In order to achieve equitable results and lasting solutions to these social problems, race must be part of the conversation; it must also tangibly inform policy and daily practices.

This month, we are fielding a new national survey based on the Equipt to Innovate framework that will be sent to the largest 250 U.S. cities by population. Like its predecessor, the survey will provide a chance for cities to assess their work against these aspirational Equipt outcomes, and then see how they compare to peer cities throughout the United States. It also will provide the same cities with a basis for further exploration of what’s working and what’s not, and the incentive to innovate and make changes where needed.

As in many things, innovation is often in the eye of the beholder; for example, one city’s innovation to create a one-stop shop for development services might be another city’s “oh-so-yesterday.” Rather than enter that fray, the Equipt framework for high-performing government will establish a standard of realistic but high expectations for what it takes to meet the toughest challenges of the 21st century as agile, accountable and surely innovative city government.

All of this comes as Living Cities marks its first 25 years of pursuing a new urban practice that gets better and faster results for low-income people. A quarter century later, it is time to pull it all together. This is the movement. Equipt is an open invitation to America’s cities to collaborate, learn from each other, and realize the innovation dividend.