To transform systems and improve the lives of low-income people at scale, we need a high-performing public sector that is nimble, collaborative, data-driven, and focused on applying and leveraging public resources in the most effective ways to drive shared prosperity for all people.

Government plays a unique role in building shared prosperity for all people through the policies it creates, the resources it deploys, and the leadership it exerts. Especially in a time of fiscal constraint, when needs often outpace current capacity, playing this role most effectively requires a public sector that is increasingly innovative in both its policies and practices. To transform systems and produce improved results, we need a high-performing public sector that is nimble, collaborative, data-driven, and focused on applying and leveraging public resources in the most effective ways to drive shared prosperity for all people.

One of the key questions that leaders in city governments are increasingly thinking about is how to build new ways of working – structures and processes that will make it easier to advance innovative practices and policies. A number of cities, for example, have recently created the position of Chief Innovation Officer, with different cities defining the responsibilities of this position in different ways. The experimentation with many of these structures and ways of working is still at a relatively early stage, and so cities haven’t yet reached a consensus about which models work best to produce results of various kinds. But it is clear that we have entered an important period of experimentation and learning, one that Living Cities is interested in fostering. Out of this experimentation will come lessons and models that other cities can use and adapt to help move their work in more effective directions.

A recent meeting of the Urban Policy Advisory Group (UPAG) – the network of senior city leaders convened by Living Cities and the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School – explored a number of differing approaches to re-thinking municipal structures to advance innovation.

In the Bloomberg Innovation Delivery Team model, for example, five cities (Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Memphis, and New Orleans) each selected two high-profile issues to address and assembled a team (hired specifically for this purpose) with a direct line of communication to the mayor. The teams are leveraging an ideation process to come up with a variety of potential solutions to the identified problems. In Chicago, for example, Mayor Emmanuel has charged the team with reforming the bureaucratic process involved in starting a small business. The solution-finding process has involved a prototyping and testing model which invited business owners to evaluate and provide feedback on numerous potential models.

Elsewhere, different models are suggesting other promising advances in innovation in city government. In 2010, Mayor Menino created an Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston specifically dedicated to the incubation of innovations intended to transform the way city government is delivering services to Boston residents. Already, the office is capitalizing on technological innovations to better and differently engage with citizens and more effectively respond to their needs. Philadelphia recently established such an office, as well.

Denver is taking a different approach to the question of innovation, choosing to distribute responsibility for innovation throughout city government. The Peak Performance model provides intensive training to employees at all levels of government, guiding them towards more innovative ways of thinking and methods of working. This model both pushes employees to tackle existing waste and inefficiencies in their respective departments and work, and empowers them to develop and test creative new approaches to service delivery. With a people-centered approach, this model is building a new culture of innovation across Denver’s government.

Another model for innovation, the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) in New York City, grew out Mayor Bloomberg’s 2006 Commission for Economic Opportunity and aims to develop creative new solutions to dramatically cut poverty in New York City. The Center works closely with agency commissioners across city government to involve them in the implementation of innovations and solutions. The CEO also distinguishes itself for its deep commitment to performance measurement, evaluation and accountability, one of several features that helped it to win the Ash Center’s Innovation in American Government Award in 2011.

In the coming weeks, a number of city leaders will be sharing their experiences with different models for structuring innovation in municipal government on this blog, highlighting lessons learned and questions that still remain.