In fall 2014, 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 launched in September 2014 - with Louisville, KY; Nashville, TN; and Philadelphia, PA. This inaugural cohort is focusing on municipal innovation. Recognizing local assets, gaps in services and infrastructure, and culture, these cities are shifting how municipal government leverages partnerships and engages local residents in creating solutions to some of the most pressing challenges in their communities.
Equal Measure serves as the national evaluator for the Living Cities initiative. In the following pages, we showcase the most impactful findings from our evaluation framework Outcome Areas:
- Partnership and Engagement
- Data Use
- Resource Allocation
- Policy and Practice
Partnership and Engagement
City Accelerator sites have brought a wide range of partners into their innovation and community engagement efforts.
In particular, cities are working with cross-sections of municipal government to develop pilot projects that make a difference for residents. Additionally, they are providing more opportunities and venues for community organizations and low-income residents to have a say in identifying new approaches to solving community issues. Despite these broader community engagements, local philanthropy, for the most part, is not yet involved in City Accelerator efforts.
All City Accelerator sites have deepened their relationships with staff of other municipal offices. Government employees involved in City Accelerator referenced greater trust between municipal offices, which resulted in more and deeper collaboration between departments. These expanded relationships often have resulted from City Accelerator core staff inviting municipal staff from other offices to learn more about this work. This deeper collaboration is evidenced in Cohort 1, in the post-grant funding of cross-training opportunities across municipal offices in Philadelphia, and the growing relationship between the Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation in Louisville and 26 departments in Louisville Metro Government.
Most City Accelerator sites have developed components in their innovation and community engagement initiatives that have increased residents’ trust in local government. Staff of City Accelerator projects in Cohort 1 reported that innovation and community engagement initiatives contributed to increased trust in city government on the part of residents. The sites helped build trust through more authentic engagement of citizens; co-development of interventions that were planned in phase 1 and the creation of forums and feedback loops whereby residents saw their input included into municipal projects (such as Louisville’s Hackathon).
Most City Accelerator teams have developed partnerships across the private and non-profit sectors that have spurred new ways of thinking that help build authentic engagement/human-centered design and innovation into the daily workings of local government. Beyond a broad array of municipal departments, cities in City Accelerator Cohort 1 have formed key partnerships with non-governmental organizations. These partnerships have been crucial to the success of projects. Some partners have shared fiscal responsibility for projects, while other partners have signed on to support the initiative at the conclusion of the Living Cities investment. Other cities have brought in Community Based Organizations or university partners to serve as consultants or trainers, focusing on aspects of City Accelerator initiatives in which the municipality did not have deep content expertise. Examples of this include the upcoming training on trauma-informed customer service for staff in the Philadelphia Department of Revenue and the Water Department; and outside expertise that was brought in to conduct “Lean” and “Six-Sigma” training for staff across departments in Louisville Metro government.
All City Accelerator initiatives have generated more opportunities to engage external stakeholders and residents in planning and implementation of innovation and community engagement projects. City Accelerator sites have found ways to more authentically include citizen voices throughout planning and implementation, including:
- Forming community resident “advisory boards”
- Sharing outcomes and goals of experiments in a traveling “roadshow” to community stakeholders (Philadelphia)
- Creating formally recognized leadership roles/positions for residents to serve as communication hubs and advocates for other low-income residents to have better access to critical services and entrepreneurship/small business opportunities.
City Accelerator sites have helped bolster a culture of data use in their municipalities.
Within city governments, this has included using data from existing sources to more effectively and efficiently provide municipal services and conduct citizen outreach efforts. Cities have also built upon existing data by designing new experiments and citizen engagement opportunities that yielded “data” related to salient issues based on the lived experiences of residents. City Accelerator teams have shared this data with municipal leaders to strengthen the case for policy and practice changes that can enhance the quality of life for low-income residents in their respective cities.
Most City Accelerator cities have used internally and externally generated data to understand service gaps and more effectively provide services for low-income residents. City Accelerator teams have used population and departmental data in new ways to ensure that they are bringing value to low-income residents through their innovation and community engagement initiatives. Specifically, City Accelerator teams have used data to:
- Demonstrate the need for and potential impact of City Accelerator projects: In Philadelphia, multiple departments collaborated to map numbers of residents that are eligible for services they are not presently utilizing. In Louisville, The Fire and Human Services departments used data to correlate the number of low-income residents that are also at risk due to fires in dilapidated buildings.
- Identify and engage with residents whose voices have not been traditionally incorporated into government outreach efforts.
In all Cohort 1 cities, City Accelerator teams collected data from pilot experiments with low-income residents. The teams used that information to advocate for policy and practice changes and to argue for sustaining the City Accelerator pilot work beyond the Living Cities investment. Cities across Cohort 1 have used data gathered through innovative pilots to show their value for and impact on low-income residents to help institutionalize these activities beyond the term of their present City Accelerator funding. The Cold Weather Card, which successfully assisted homeless Nashville residents in accessing public transportation during winter months, is one experiment with potential to become sustained. This innovation came about when city officials learned that Nashville had enough beds for its estimated homeless population, but insufficient transportation to connect them to these beds. In Philadelphia, early success with low-cost colored envelopes that increased response rates from senior citizens has helped the team make the case to the new mayoral administration to introduce training in human-centered design and trauma-informed customer service orientations to other departments.
City Accelerator sites have created synergies between their grant funds and existing resources inside and outside of their municipalities.
This progress has led to greater sharing of human and financial resources with other municipal departments to augment the impact of City Accelerator’s innovation and community engagement funding. These efforts have also helped increase municipal support for investment in methods that reflect more efficient, service-oriented ways of working. Momentum gained from projects seems most likely to become sustained when City Accelerator teams and processes are integrated into strategic planning activities, and are provided for through the allocation of dollars in a city’s general fund or departmental budgets.
In several cities, City Accelerator funds have built upon and reinforced other investments in municipal innovation and community engagement. City Accelerator teams have reported that there is synchronicity between the City Accelerator investment and other external investments that focus on municipal innovation and community engagement. For example, City Accelerator teams have noted other Living Cities initiatives, investments from other large philanthropies, and federal grants that have supported their work. While City Accelerator dollars have a different emphasis, core teams from Cohort 1 cities have seen symmetry between their initiatives and projects supported by other funding streams. This symmetry has reinforced the Living Cities investments by creating space for City Accelerator core teams to work with larger cross-sections of their municipal colleagues.
City Accelerator funding has spurred new ways for municipal governments to support innovation and engagement that have the potential to extend beyond the Living Cities investment. City teams have suggested that a primary benefit of the Living Cities investment has been the way it has triggered modes of experimentation that are not typical for municipalities. Living Cities funding of early pilots shows promise to be continued in all three Cohort 1 cities post-grant. For example, the Philadelphia City Accelerator team would like to develop an “Accelerator Fund” that would seed future small-scale innovation experiments throughout the municipal government. In addition, Cohort 1 city teams have seen their work contribute to the institutionalization of new departments devoted to innovation (e.g., Louisville), or greater support for the infusion of more innovative practices into the departments they transitioned to after the end of Living Cities’ investment (e.g., Philadelphia).
Results from City Accelerator pilots are increasingly being shared by City Accelerator teams and discussed at strategic planning or budgetary meetings – further demonstrating a commitment to the City Accelerator agenda in several cities. City teams in Cohort 1 reflected on their work and the need to elevate innovation and community engagement into budget conversations. In cities where City Accelerator has been integrated into mayoral priorities, these conversations are part of budgeting and strategic planning meetings with departmental leadership. In Philadelphia and Nashville, City Accelerator teams have developed champions for municipal innovation within their local city councils.
Policy and Practice
City Accelerator teams have had a notable impact on how their municipalities go about their work.
Cities have identified and modified internal policies and practices in order to support innovation and authentic community engagement at the municipal level. A core strategy in advancing these changes has been the revision of staffing and planning practices, such that greater numbers of municipal employees are exposed to new innovation and community engagement approaches as part of the daily work of their departments and agencies.
A majority of municipalities with City Accelerator investments have identified internal practice and policy changes that could institutionalize some of the gains made related to innovation and community engagement. City Accelerator teams have successfully worked with their municipal colleagues to elevate strategies for changing local policies and practices that could make government more responsive to the needs of low-income residents. Some of these planned efforts reflect opportunities to refine ways that government agencies serve low-income residents, such as: a single definition of income in Philadelphia that brings together disparate federal poverty guidelines and local criteria for being considered “low-income”; and streamlining the process for how calls are received by Emergency Services in Louisville.
The initiatives of some City Accelerator cities have been elevated by Mayoral directives – opening space for agency heads to prioritize innovation and community engagement in the daily working of government. City teams have reported that strong support from sitting mayors (and those that are transitioning in) has been essential to integrating innovation and community engagement into government practice. In Louisville, for example, the mayor’s tacit support for connecting innovation to mayoral budget and enterprise-wide agency reporting was key for that integration. In Nashville, the City Accelerator team has reported on innovations generated in the Ideas-2-Reality sessions formally included as part of the mayor’s strategic planning sessions.
Some City Accelerator municipalities have infused innovation and community engagement into staffing practices. A couple cities with strong mayoral leadership have secured dedicated municipal staff that can help embed innovation and community engagement into the work of offices not directly connected to City Accelerator. In Louisville, there is an identified strategic planning and LouieStat liaison (one person may hold both roles in a department) across the 26 departments that comprise the Metro Government. Furthermore, in Louisville, staff of the Metro Government often seek input from the Office of Performance Improvement & Innovation in crafting job descriptions for new hires – ensuring they have backgrounds that are conducive to engaging in innovation-related work.
Nashville's Cold Weather Card
Bringing "ideas to reality"
The City Accelerator team created a forum for innovative ideas that could be presented to the mayor as part of the strategic planning process for the city. What emerged was Ideas 2 Reality (I2R), a standing opportunity for four department teams (Economic & Community Development, Budget, Neighborhood & Community Engagement, and Transportation & Infrastructure) to use data to advocate for adding services for some of Nashville’s most underserved residents.
Louisville and the Office of Performance Improvement & Innovation
Finding a home for innovation in Louisville Metro Government
Funding from Living Cities was a key lever in the merger of Louisville’s Office of Performance Improvement and the (Bloomberg-funded) i-team in 2015. The result was the formation of the Office of Performance Improvement & Innovation (OPI2). OPI2 partners with many departments and agencies within Metro Government.
BenePhilly's Streamlined Service Delivery Approach
Identifying gaps in service delivery for low-income Philadelphians
The team from Philadelphia’s Cohort 1 City Accelerator initiative focused its innovation activities on reducing barriers to enrollment in, and expanding access to, public benefits such as the water bill assistance program. These benefits were being under-utilized by some of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable residents. Among the lessons learned from this successful experiment to help reduce seniors’ water bills, it became apparent that there were many assistance programs that citizens could not access in a one-stop shop manner, due to varying income criteria and other eligibility standards.