In fall 2014, the Citi Foundation and Living Cities launched the City Accelerator, a three-year, $3 million program designed to foster innovation among city governments to address the pressing challenges facing low-income residents.
The City Accelerator is working with three cohorts of cities, with each cohort running for 18 months to advance innovative efforts that improve the lives of low-income people. The first cohort, focusing on municipal innovation, launched in September 2014 – with Louisville, KY; Nashville, TN; and Philadelphia, PA. Here, we reflect on progress of the City Accelerator cohort 2 cities: Baltimore, MD; Atlanta, GA; New Orleans, LA; Seattle, WA; and Albuquerque, NM.
Equal Measure serves as the national evaluator for City Accelerator. On the following pages, we share impactful findings on the progress of City Accelerator cohort 2 cities, based on the evaluation framework Outcome Areas:
- Partnerships and Engagement
- Data Use
- Resource Allocation
- Policy and Practice Change
Partnerships and Engagement
Cities have used new methods to engage residents as thought partners in their City Accelerator efforts.
Most Cohort 2 cities have strengthened their projects by using new methods of engaging residents. In lieu of conducting traditional outreach to elicit community feedback on topics such as business needs, healthcare, and community development, these new methods included “Deep Dives” and “Design Days” that more authentically incorporated the voices of residents. Both methods brought together large numbers of City Accelerator core teams, residents, and local community-based organizations to identify possible solutions to community issues. These resident-centric approaches honored and compensated for residents’ time and expertise, and led City Accelerator teams to create new leadership roles for residents (such as Navigators and Ambassadors) that empower them to bring in wider swaths of the community. Resident leaders unearthed issues that were not previously considered by City Accelerator teams. In Baltimore, it was revealed that returning citizens (those returning to their communities after incarceration) need to be connected to more services before they leave the justice system. City Accelerator staff in Baltimore used this information to implement pre-release services — such as information on housing options and behavioral health services— that helped smooth the transition for returning citizens.
Cities have engaged with external expertise to refine their approaches to project design and implementation. City Accelerator core teams have worked with outside partners, including universities and other service providers, to find new ways to reach out to the public. Atlanta and Albuquerque have engaged with experts around the concept of design-thinking (a human-centered, solution-focused approach to innovation), to push their thinking about behavioral economics and ensure that their work would reach more residents. New Orleans tested different types of messaging as part of an effort to increase resident utilization of healthcare services. These efforts included bringing in other providers and trusted community-based organizations to better understand how to more effectively provide services.
Cities have strategically used data from target populations to inform implementation of programs –including data on the potential over-engagement of certain residents.
Most cities used Design Days, workshops, and business Deep Dives to gather data from residents. Beyond better understanding the scope of the issues that each project tackled, these data helped municipal leaders, as well as partners in the initiatives (e.g., other municipal agencies, service organizations for immigrants, and entrepreneurs), coordinate outreach to ensure that multiple efforts were not targeting the same residents. Seattle, for example, has developed a CRM system that prevents duplication of efforts in the city via sharing of data and calendars. Information gathered directly from residents has deepened the data that core staff has related to issues such as entrepreneurship, incarceration rates, and connection to a medical home. By learning about experiences and viewpoints shared by residents, strategies are tailored to address issues that these groups face and to help them succeed. In New Orleans, city officials learned from residents about barriers to enrolling in medical coverage. They also learned about what types of messaging are most likely to encourage community members to visit a doctor, addressing an underlying distrust felt by community members towards the health care system.
Cities have successfully used technology to ease resident access to information and services. Most cities have found efficient ways to use technology to create a bridge between residents and services. For example, Albuquerque developed a database and app to connect immigrant entrepreneurs to information related to business. In Baltimore, returning citizens were invited to use a “Secret Shopper tool” when engaging with service providers to ensure they meet their needs. New Orleans incorporated behavioral economics principles when testing text messaging communication to understand which messages best encouraged utilization of services, such as healthcare benefits.
City Accelerator teams’ work has been enhanced by strong in-kind support from other municipal departments.
Most of the cohort 2 cities have several departments outside of core teams contributing to projects, as well as in-kind contributions of space from city partners. This support has often included departments that were not initial partners in the City Accelerator projects. For example, Atlanta City Accelerator staff worked with a professor from Georgia Tech to plan a series of design thinking workshops with Westside Atlanta residents. Georgia Tech was in charge of analyzing data gathered in these sessions. Meanwhile, Seattle consolidated its IT staff, and the city’s Department of Neighborhoods worked with this newly centralized department to develop and implement a digital engagement plan. While difficult to quantify, this use of staff time for colleagues who are not paid under the grant speaks to the commitment of host cities to the City Accelerator initiatives.
City Accelerator projects have become institutionalized in municipal governments, demonstrating their allegiance to this effort. This institutionalization has taken the form of projects becoming absorbed by general funds, the creation of new positions (within the Office of Planning and Community Affairs in Atlanta), and new offices or stand-alone projects (Office of Immigrant Affairs and Project Molino in Albuquerque). City Accelerator teams suggested that the absorption of projects into these more stable funding streams speaks to their city’s commitment to continuing their public engagement efforts.
Policy and Practice Change
Cities have advanced current practices to improve service delivery to residents.
City Accelerator projects have affected the ways that other departments in government and community-based organizations function. In the case of government, this has included refining how departments (e.g., New Orleans Health Department, Baltimore Department of Corrections, and Atlanta Housing Authority) partner with outside agencies and residents. In Albuquerque, Atlanta, and New Orleans, City Accelerator teams connected outside service providers with residents to refine their approach to service delivery to better meet resident needs. For example, New Orleans is helping city health centers serve low-income residents through its “Stand Up and Get Care” campaign. Through a community-led research and design process, Atlanta developed a “Community Engagement Playbook” that provides guidance and principles for community associations and service providers to engage local communities in their work.
Cities are in the nascent stages of identifying critical policy issues, and advocacy efforts, to increase the quality of life for residents. Core teams have explored potential policies (e.g., housing policy in Atlanta, the end of a successful early release program in Baltimore, and policies regulating food truck vendors in Albuquerque) that adversely affect the quality of life for the population of residents they serve. However, core staff have not had the capacity to advocate for changes to these policies within the timeframe or scope of the City Accelerator projects. One exception to this is Seattle, where the mayor issued an executive order which directs the Department of Neighborhoods to lead an effort for all city departments to implement equitable and inclusive outreach and engagement practices.