The Pursuit of Civic Innovation ROI
Conventional wisdom on Civic Innovation is that we have all the right ingredients to change government: The timing, the talent, and the technology are all there and if used and blended properly, these “three T’s” can positively reshape government. The Second Wave of Civic Innovation is therefore an important inflection point for leadership within our cities to identify which ideas and projects to initiate and which tools and partnerships to develop. In short, it’s the distinction between civic innovations as the flavor of the week or as a source of genuine, verified value added, in other words, a true, measureable Civic Innovation ROI.
Recent commitments by Bloomberg Philanthropies to grant $45 million to cities provide a powerful motivator for city departments and external partners to define the critical issues that could benefit most from Bloomberg’s data and technology tools. Last year, I organized a “Civic Ideation Lab” at the Stanford d.School for leaders from across Silicon Valley’s public, private and philanthropic community. In the lead-up to the Lab the two expert innovation companies we worked with, Stanford ChangeLabs and SMALLIFY posed some important questions to consider as we “smallifyed” the focus of the half-day event and to select projects we might launch.
What was the purpose of the Lab? “Identify project opportunities to engage pro-bono talent from across sectors to assist Silicon Valley governments.”
Who participated? Government leaders from City of San Jose, Santa Clara and Fremont, talent from regional technology firms, professional services companies and foundations who support civic engagement
In one of the planning meetings my colleague from ChangeLabs asked a question with an interesting analogy:
“Do you think the opportunities with city leaders and private sector talent are “vitamins” or “painkillers?” My response was (and is today) that we should think about the “vitamin” and “painkiller” metaphor through the lens of what civic innovation means to a city resident and what it means for a government employee. I also believe, however, that the two are interrelated — for example, a pain-point solving issue might be necessary for government staff, but look unimportant to residents.
I believe that we should consider the following questions from the view of a city resident:
- Does the civic innovation being considered involve something that matters? For example, in the event of an emergency, such as the recent Napa earthquake, which also rippled through the Bay Area, do I know the appropriate steps and actions to take to locate a shelter with emergency services?
- Does the proposed innovation have some promise to improve my quality of life? For example, real-time communication on street closures, whether my trash will be picked up, or if the program at the local library has space available for my child’s after-school program?
If the answer to those questions is no, then while interesting and engaging, the civic innovation might not be lead to a meaningful and measurable Civic Innovation ROI.
From the perspective of a government employee, we referred to the ideas and feedback we received through a series of one-on-one discussions with the participating government leaders and a brief survey. The responses were consistent:
- Yes, there are “projects” to engage and some may at first seem mechanical in nature, but have innovative solutions. For example, in the areas of permitting, and emergency/disaster preparedness, there’s great potential for improvement in project design and scope. At that point, we then apply technology.
- If we’re not placing residents first (seeking input, understanding available data collected) then we’re not doing right by our residents. The civic innovation projects may be nice to have, but not entirely necessary.
- Two areas where private sector talent could dedicate pro-bono time with local governments are: hosting data jams and assisting on budget innovations and cost-recovery initiatives. Both opportunities offer shared learning, drive the open and transparent government agenda forward and play to the interests of young people seeking opportunities to solve big challenges such as housing the homeless and workforce development for the under-employed and unemployed. .
In today’s world, it’s important for government leadership to foster and strengthen partnerships in projects that are meaningful and measureable for both city residents and government employees. It’s not clear whether all that which passes for “innovation” produces concrete, worthwhile results, no matter how civically interesting these reforms seem. I believe the next year will reveal which of the array of civic innovations are here to stay as the next generation of public service for our nation’s cities.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Since historically marginalized communities are already being disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I am frustrated to see these communities also negatively impacted by the lack of on-the-ground public engagement. While I realize the threat of COVID-19 and the associated restrictions make conducting on-the-ground public engagement challenging, I want to encourage fellow planners to think more creatively. I will admit that I struggled to think creatively when I first heard that Clackamas Community College (CCC) would continue having mostly online classes in Spring Term 2021. CCC has had mostly online classes since the end of Winter Term 2020 when COVID-19 first started impacting Oregon. CCC’s decision about Spring Term 2021 became more stressful when Clackamas County staff told me that public outreach for their new shuttles could not be delayed until next summer.
A new toolkit has been developed to help businesses think through strategies to decrease mobility barriers to the workplace, which reduces turnover. When workers can reliably get to work regardless of their personal circumstances, it provides employment stability and the opportunity to build wealth. It’s a win-win. Developed through a partnership between Metropolitan Planning Council and a pro bono Boston Consulting Group team, the toolkit includes slide decks, an overview report, customizable templates, a cost calculator, and instructional videos walking a company through the thought process of establishing a baseline situation, evaluating and selecting a solution, and standing up a program.
Depending on the employer’s location and employees’ needs, solutions may range from helping with last-mile transportation to the transit system, to developing on-demand vanpools, to establishing in-house carpool matching systems. The ROI calculator gives employers the ability to determine the break-even cost—the subsidy amount a company can manage without hurting the bottom line.
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.