A few years ago, I spent a day with a principal at a large urban high school. We had a number of wide ranging conversations but one in particular has stuck with me to this day. He said there were 27 different programs that came into his school, before, during and after the school day, in a given year. They each were seemingly addressing an important problem, from reading and math to mentoring and college preparation. However, his assessment of their impact was less than favorable: “I don’t need new programs. I need the underlying system to work. I need the process to fix the problems upstream, permanently.”
Over the years, I’ve referred to this as the “Big Work Around” phenomenon; instead of attacking the underlying system we throw a new program at the problem until the program’s money runs out. What’s promising about the emerging municipal government innovation field is that many aspects of it address this head on.
Local governments intentionally are focusing on how they can change the fundamental ways that they operate so they can not only address a current problem but future problems too. That’s why I find the i-teams championed by Bloomberg Philanthropies so encouraging. Innovation teams sit in the mayor’s office and deploy an effective problem-solving process. The teams partner with agency leaders across the local government to leverage best-in-class idea generation techniques and use a structured, data-driven approach to deliver results. Initially launched in five US cities - Atlanta, GA; Chicago, IL; Louisville, KY; Memphis, TN; and New Orleans, LA. Late last year 12 new American and 2 Israeli cities were added to further spread the approach.
Living Cities is excited about partnering with Bloomberg Philanthropies on this new cohort of cities. Working with Bloomberg Philanthropies and Bennett Midland, the technical assistance provider to the cities, we will be focusing on fostering continued learning, the cross-fertilization of ideas and the adaptation of promising practices across cities and the broader field. Like we do in our other work, we will identify and build in opportunities to rapidly document knowledge at the city, cohort, and issue specific levels so the learning can be easily assessed, in real time, by this quickly growing field around the country. Recently, the new 14 teams came together for the first time to work with each other and mentors from the first five i-team cities. I took three powerful takeaways from that day:
- An approach that helps fix processes is sustainable. While each of the first five i-team cities were initially fully funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies to build their staff, I was struck by how many of these cities actually assumed the full cost of operating in this new way by the end of the grant period. The fact that this new way of working became the ‘new normal’ because it enabled the city to attack and solve diverse problems is a testament to the fact that this approach simply makes good practical sense.
- A focus on process can tackle seemingly intractable problems. Contrary to popular belief, process improvements are not limited to performance management, like improved pothole filling or trash pickup. Innovation teams used it to successfully attack really challenging problems. The New Orleans story is particularly compelling. New Orleans' Innovation Team is credited with designing an approach that helped to reduce the local murder rate to its lowest level since 1985.
- Bringing groups of cities together is a force multiplier. The creation of robust, multilayered networks has been central to Living Cities’ approach to innovation, including our nine-city Integration Initiative, our 35-city Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI), the 57-city StriveTogether ‘cradle to career’ network and our recently launched City Accelerator. At the core, we have found that creating an engaged cohort of trusted peer cities increases the pace of their progress, and enables the co-creation of more impactful solutions. We saw this immediately at the first convening of the new i-team cities as the directors moved quickly to find common ground with each other, to see patterns across the work in their cities, and in connecting with the ‘pioneer cities’ who offered a lot of rich advice to help them avoid the mistakes they made in round one.
The i-teams and their successes are helping to build a new road to enduring change. Unlike so much of the work in the past that relied on outside advocacy for change, these approaches are driving change from the inside out. The greater the results and the faster these ideas spread, the better for everyone.
Learn more about our partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies and the i-teams here.