In 2006, Living Cities partnered with Harvard University’s Ash Center to launch the Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI). PMI convenes more than 40 chiefs of staff and policy directors from municipalities around the country to help rethink how cities can most effectively serve their residents and address issues facing their municipalities, including inefficiency in city government and inequality. One of the core ideas that emerged from this network is how innovative practices can help break through inefficient bureaucratic silos which often slow the pace of needed changes to practices and policies. Furthermore, low-income residents are often disproportionately affected by these inefficient and ineffective systems. These systems also often do not provide incentives for municipalities to experiment with innovations or include the voices of more residents in decision-making processes.
In fall 2014, Citi Foundation and Living Cities launched City Accelerator—a three-year, $3 million initiative designed to contribute to the movement to enhance the functioning of local systems and to foster innovation among city governments to address the pressing challenges facing low-income residents. The term “innovation” refers to “the process of turning new ideas into practical value for the world, in the form of new products, services or ways of doing things.” Living Cities invited PMI cities to apply for funds that could help catalyze smaller-scale (relative to the scale of systemic issues cities confront) innovation in these cities and point the way to new ways of working internally. City Accelerator was created in part to translate dialogue into action by giving cities seed funding to adopt many of the ideas discussed during the PMI sessions.
To date, City Accelerator has launched four cohorts—three of which were the focus of Equal Measure’s evaluation. Equal Measure’s evaluation of City Accelerator focused on four elements of a systems change framework: Partnerships and Engagement, Data Use, Resource Allocation, and Policy and Practice Change. This framework operated under the hypothesis that transforming relationships with internal partners in government and external stakeholders can contribute to policy and practice changes that eventually will affect low-income residents in the City Accelerator cohorts’ three focal areas.
About the City Accelerator Cohorts
The Citi Foundation and Living Cities teams saw the importance of bringing together cohorts of cities that were finding new ways for municipalities to solve challenges for residents. Each cohort consisted of 3-5 cities working on topics that were selected for their broad applicability across PMI cities; as well as their potential for modeling innovative solutions within the 18-month timeframe that could be sustained and scaled after the close of the City Accelerator investment.
Cohort 1: Embedding a Culture of Innovation in Municipal Government
The emphasis on innovation provided an opportunity for each city to experiment with creative ways to address issues that affected the citizenry. After designing these experiments, each city piloted these experiments on a small scale, with the goal to spur future investment in the new methods piloted. Cohort 1 was supported by its cohort lead, Nigel Jacob, co-founder of Boston’s Office of Urban Mechanics. At the end of the cohort, Nigel captured lessons learned in the City Accelerator Guide for Embedding Innovation in Local Government. This guide helps other cities think about the challenges and opportunities for experimenting with new methods in the often slow-moving bureaucratic contexts in which city agencies operate.
Cohort 2: Revitalizing Community Engagement
The emphasis on community engagement enabled each city to rethink how it engages residents in authentic dialogue about solutions to pressing municipal issues. After exploring possible solutions, City Accelerator staff worked with residents to implement some of these new approaches. Cohort 2 was led by Professor Eric Gordon of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College. Along with providing direct technical assistance to sites, Professor Gordon prepared the Public Engagement Roadmap. This roadmap captures case studies of Cohort 2 cities to provide examples for how other cities may rethink the reasoning and methodology that undergird their efforts to engage citizens in decision-making processes.
Cohort 3: Infrastructure Finance
The emphasis on creative methods of financing public infrastructure provided cities with new strategies for bringing more voices into the planning process; and helping to solidify plans for projects that will ultimately improve public health and safety in the participating cities. Cohort 3 was led by Jen Mayer, who has more than two decades of experience in advising federal, state, and local transportation and environmental agencies on matters of finance and policy. Her implementation guide (“Resilience, Equity, and Innovation”) highlights options available for cities to expand the pool of resources at their disposal (including state and federal dollars and public-private partnerships) for advancing infrastructure projects that can be maintained over the life of the new asset.
Partnerships and Engagement
Nearly every City Accelerator city engaged internal and external stakeholders in identifying solutions to pressing issues in the early phases of the work. One of the most prominent features of City Accelerator projects across the first three cohorts was the inclusion of new partners that were brought on early to provide input on solutions to pressing social issues. For example:
- Philadelphia conducted focus groups to inform the design of future experiments with water bills. These focus groups helped city employees understand what aspects of the experiments could most likely aid other residents in taking advantage of available city services.
- Cities developed new forums and platforms that more meaningfully engaged citizens in the work of local government; including Design Day in New Orleans and the City of Atlanta partnering with Georgia Tech, Westside Future Fund, and community residents to create the Atlanta Community Engagement Playbook.
- San Francisco conducted town hall-style meetings with residents in communities adjacent to the seawall to explain the municipal procurement process and understand how the repair and maintenance of this asset may affect the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Cities across cohorts worked with multiple departments in their municipalities to maintain the effort over the long term. City Accelerator core staff have built these relationships by providing more hands-on opportunities for staff in other departments to partner with their offices. Additionally, internal and external stakeholders increasingly took greater responsibility for implementing projects in their later phases.
City governments engaged content experts to train employees on new methods and approaches to sustain initiatives beyond the City Accelerator grant period. Cities across City Accelerator cohorts used the flexible pool of grant resources to augment projects by contracting with experts in an array of fields to bring capacity and skills in areas that cities often do not have the time or resources to build into their work. Partnerships with outside experts were developed through connections that cities already had through prior collaboration; connections through cohort leads; and connections through Living Cities or Citi Foundation. The cities engaged the experts and their firms for their knowledge and experience in methods, tools, and content areas, and the outside firms’ potential to strengthen City Accelerator projects and support the uptake of these new approaches over the longer term.
City Accelerator cities modified available technologies to collect and analyze data gathered through their projects. Cities across cohorts used technology to gather real-time data about how stakeholders, particularly residents, perceived the issue they were addressing in their cities. Across cohorts, technology was critical to encourage some of the most affected residents to contribute data on the front-end of planning processes for specific issues; as well as to provide an ongoing means for residents to have real-time data on the progress of planned initiatives. For example:
- Philadelphia City Accelerator teams’ experiments uncovered the need to streamline the online benefits application process, as well as tweak the paper applications that were sent to residents.
- Baltimore worked with returning citizens to collect data on businesses and public agencies that are friendlier to those who were formerly incarcerated, and share this information via an online “secret shopper tool” so other returning citizens could more easily navigate the city upon release.
- Pittsburgh developed a crowd-sourced Wikimap to help residents prioritize which of the city’s damaged steps to repair as part of its capital campaign ("Pittsburgh City Steps").
Cities created mechanisms to more readily share data with external stakeholders in their cities. City Accelerator core teams effectively communicated the results of their initiatives to community residents and other stakeholders:
- The Louisville City Accelerator team shared their data on neighborhood safety and improvements via the “LouieStat” platform that is publicly available on their website. This platform provides an opportunity for residents to hold municipal government accountable for achieving the goals they have developed for the city.
- Seattle conducted an online survey of resident preferences for new housing legislation, and makes that information available on the city website. This open-sourced survey enables residents to express their preferences, while learning how their fellow residents feel about the most pressing quality of life issues in the city. Albuquerque’s TrepConnect was also utilized by the City Accelerator team to create a platform to provide resources to immigrant entrepreneurs who may not have been willing to seek this information out on their own.
- St. Paul and Washington, D.C. held community forums at the beginning of the initiative to gather resident input on municipal finance projects they were advancing through City Accelerator. These city teams regularly returned to community forums to update residents and other stakeholders about progress of their infrastructure finance projects.
Policy and Practice Change
Cities in the City Accelerator cohorts discovered policy barriers that they will need to address in order to create the desired change in their communities. While the 18-month period may not be long enough to enact policy changes, cities across cohorts identified policy barriers that, in many cases, have had negative impacts on the quality of life of the cities’ most vulnerable residents. Although cities were not all working toward changing these policies as part of their City Accelerator initiatives, a better understanding of these issues has allowed cities to plan for complementary advocacy efforts needed to advance their projects over the longer term. For example:
- In Philadelphia, the City Accelerator team identified multiple definitions of “poverty” at the federal and state/local levels that made it unclear which residents could be eligible for needed subsidies and programs.
- In Albuquerque, staff identified food truck policies that disproportionately affect immigrant entrepreneurs.
- Across Cohort 3 cities, teams identified lack of clarity around which assets (steps, land, streetlights, and the seawall) were owned by cities and which should be maintained by larger government entities, private citizens, or businesses as critical issues to be resolved before moving forward with large scale capital projects.
Cities changed internal practices in the departments that house City Accelerator, and these changes are likely to result in significant positive impacts for residents. The City Accelerator initiative has catalyzed changes to the way members of all three cohorts function. These changes began in departments connected to City Accelerator, and have the potential for wider impact outside the scope of these projects.
City Accelerator core teams have strategically generated outside interest from entities outside of Living Cities and Citi Foundation, which they have converted into financial resources to help advance projects. Through the efforts of City Accelerator, cities have reached outside of government to find partners interested in funding their innovative work. For example:
- In Baltimore, the team tested their intervention for returning citizens against other innovations, and were awarded a prize through the Kaiser-Permanente Social Innovation Challenge.
- Louisville utilized matched funds from Living Cities, PNC Foundation, and Next Century Cities as part of an initiative to provide access to ultra-high speed public internet in the city. The initiative is a collaboration between local government, community center, local philanthropy, and other community partners.
- San Francisco and St. Paul have generated additional funds totaling in the millions of dollars to support their seawall and green infrastructure finance initiatives respectively. These funds have resulted from new public and private sector partnerships, which have brought in additional partners to share operations and maintenance expenses with municipal governments.
City Accelerator teams’ near-term project successes have inspired city governments to reallocate resources to support their work over the long term. The success of the City Accelerator initiatives has led cities to resume their projects after the conclusion of the 18-month grant. In several cases, City Accelerator projects are now funded through the General Funds of cities, a more decentralized fund that provides employees the space to innovate. In other cases, this success has led to the formation of new or hybrid offices in cities that have separate operating budgets. Across cohorts, these new offices have served to create processes for deciding which projects to prioritize. Overall, the formation of new offices and reallocation of city resources signals the value cities place on the City Accelerator initiatives. For example:
- In Louisville, City Accelerator facilitated the Office of Performance and Improvement merging with the Office of Innovation to form the Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation.
- Pittsburgh established the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI) in 2017 through several city ordinances. Although the establishment of DOMI was previously planned, Pittsburgh’s participation in City Accelerator helped facilitate this establishment and to orient the department during its first few transitional months.
- Washington, D.C. has enjoyed a growth in its budget from $200K to $1.2 million over the course of the City Accelerator project, and has utilized City Accelerator funding to help make more data-informed decisions about the type of large-scale capital projects it can fund as it grows its project portfolio.
Lessons for the Field
For cities wanting to implement and sustain innovative practices, evidence from City Accelerator suggests the following actions can facilitate their efforts:
Build relationships between departments and front line staff to weather change; top leadership often leaves, but front-line staff remain to carry on the work. Due to the structure of municipal government, new and promising initiatives are often disposed of simply due to a change in leadership. When taking on a new initiative, from the outset it’s critical to consider what it would take to sustain the work. With sustainability at the forefront, intentional and strategic efforts are more likely to realize change. City Accelerator cities that have sustained their innovative work despite mayoral transitions are those that have built a well-networked team of non-appointed Mid-level managers and front line staff.
Cultivate commitment and diversity, create initiatives that align multiple departmental goals. Another way to sustain an initiative is to structure core teams so that multiple team members participate in inter- and cross-departmental conversations, enabling them to hold knowledge that creates overlap in networks. Regardless of department, local government exists to serve the needs of residents; keeping this at the center will serve as a base for bringing departments together under a common goal and agenda.
Involve constituents in authentic ways. Nearly every city in each City Accelerator cohort developed new and innovative ways to engage community residents in their initiatives. Cities employed a diverse set of tools and methods in their outreach efforts, and used culturally competent approaches to tap a wider array of constituents, including those who are traditionally harder to reach.
Ensure readiness to instigate and implement. City Accelerator cities did not start from scratch. Many aspects of their projects were already underway, and City Accelerator provided the necessary financial resources and political cover to propel the work at a faster rate. All the cities had some key pieces in motion that enabled them to make progress over 18 months. For example, some cities had an existing Innovation Office of Chief Innovation Officer, while other cities had existing relationships and trust between departments—allowing work to move more quickly compared to starting fresh. When starting out, it is important for cities to be realistic about how they start innovating, and balance eagerness with patience to make long-lasting change.
Build commitment to support a collective goal. While some City Accelerator cities focused their initial efforts to build commitment with a narrow set of stakeholders, others engaged a broader group. Regardless of the number of stakeholders, the cities that leveraged the assets of a broad diversity of individuals and organizations tended to make the most progress on their goals. In the end, building commitment is not necessarily about the number of individuals involved, but the variety of stakeholders—including residents, nonprofits, and the public and private sector—who are engaged, and their ability to align potentially disparate agendas in support of a common goal.
Share the story. Piloting different strategies and implementing them over 18 months is a significant undertaking, and admittedly the documentation of important decisions, and even missteps, can be lost if no one records the story. At the start, the project lead should ensure there is someone on the team who is responsible for documenting and organizing the work such that others can learn from cities’ stories. This could be someone whose primary role is communications or even another key member of the project team. Then develop a dissemination strategy, tailored to the relevant audiences and informed with insightful data, to share the story about the project’s impact.
Fail fast and fail forward. Cities are rapidly changing—with more diverse populations and rising economic inequality, yet fewer resources to tackle pressing challenges. To address these issues, City Accelerator used innovation as the primary tenet for cities to test new ideas in their individual locales. Departments and teams need to provide space for creative thinking, where they can solve problems using alternative tools and methods. City Accelerator cities were regularly challenged along the way, often heading in one direction only to make a midcourse correction. When this occurs, it’s important that cities “fail forward,” and become better because of their mistakes, not in spite of them. The key to positive change is maintaining a willingness to experiment—knowing that failure, reflection, and learning are components of the innovation journey.