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Article Article May 7th, 2024
Cities • Innovation

10 things we’ve learned and believe in after delivering 5 years of Public Sector Design Training

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"Innovation means designing with, and for, the community." Learn from real stories like Laura Balleck Cole's journey in Allentown and uncover the power of resident engagement in shaping city governance. #CommunityEngagement #CityGovernance

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Over the last five years of training 80+ cities and counties in innovation, we’ve found that local governments are places where innovation not only exists but thrives. We've compiled a list of the best practices you can use to ensure that your local government and community thrive together.

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"Innovation doesn’t just mean new technology or flashy ideas. Instead, it means being intentional about how you solve problems for people." Discover the transformative power of intentional problem-solving in city governance. #Innovation #ProblemSolving

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10 Best Practices for Implementing Innovation - And What to Avoid

When you think of innovation, what comes to mind? Do you think of local government?

Over the last five years of training 80+ cities and counties in innovation, we’ve found that local governments are places where innovation not only exists but can thrive.

While each government organization has its unique characteristics, many learnings can be applied both inside and outside of government. We’ve compiled 10 best practices that can help you avoid common pitfalls, shift your thinking about what innovation can accomplish (hint: a lot), and safeguard your innovation work for years to come.

1. Innovation is a process and a mindset - not just a buzzword.

Innovation doesn’t just mean new technology or flashy ideas. Instead, it means being intentional about how you solve problems for people.  In the training programs we’ve run, we use design to structure our work. This works because, at its core, design is a process for learning together. Only by learning with the people most impacted by a particular problem can we work to materially improve conditions. With an expansive definition, innovation can encompass a lot - everything from a new data approach to a shift in how people work together.

Laura Balleck Cole, Manager of Civic Innovation in Allentown, explains innovation in her city as a shift in culture. After her team spent a year applying innovation in the city, Balleck Cole shared, “It's been cool to see people shift their mindsets and start to consider how things could look different in a culture that has been really set in stone for so long.”

2. Innovation means designing with, and for, the community.

There is a large difference between engaging residents via a survey and creating accessible ways for residents to contribute and design systems that impact them directly. Removing barriers to access is a democratic process, and can lead to stronger relationships and a greater desire to collaborate with the government.

LaManda Pryor, a community partner working with the team in Durham, found that listening to residents was also a trust-building exercise. She shared, “These community members we gathered do not often have a voice or feel like their voices aren’t heard - I feel like we gave them a platform to hear their stories, they are important to what we do here.”

3. Innovation work requires a mindset shift.

By working iteratively and listening to what isn’t working from internal staff and residents, cities are better equipped to learn from failure, which is imperative for innovation. Shifting these mental models around how to do work in city hall can have downstream effects, as culture change begins on an individual level, and these changes can impact larger norms and ways of working.

Teri Silva, Assistant to the City Manager in Sunnyvale, CA, stated that the city’s openness to these new tools increased when they began to see concrete results. She shared, “We are much more receptive to new practices for engagement and ability to pivot from your original idea when the results demonstrate a new direction is the correct course of action.”

4. Innovation work can build trust with communities.

Oftentimes cities don't have the bedrock of relationships with all impacted communities to involve them in the process of creating a new policy or program. Building these relationships through intentional programming, such as with work on legitimacy and trust, can help start to create the conditions for designing together. The design process has risks if government teams are not intentionally seeking ways to strengthen the well of trust with all residents before engaging them.

Kaletta Lynch, former Chief Equity Officer for Salt Lake City, saw firsthand how important it was for city government employees to come into community spaces with acknowledgment of past harms and a posture of listening and learning before the design process started. She shared, “The intention is to build a safe space for these focused groups and actively listen to establish the needs of the group [… Government employees] must show up and be present with clear intentions, honesty, acknowledgement of past hurts, and listening ears as the first step to humanize and demystify.”

5. Scaling innovation requires investing in soft skills and leadership training.

The ability and drive to bring others into the innovation process require both confidence and soft skills in networking, building relationships, and storytelling. These needs exceed a single moment of training, requiring an ongoing investment in skill development.

Pomona, CA has recognized that embedding innovation work in city hall will require a dedicated training and capacity-building effort. To that end, they have invested 1 million USD over two years for innovation training and leadership development. When reflecting on innovation, Mayor Sandoval shared, “It’s a mindset shift. It’s possibility government. We have to think differently - there’s some of that work already happening, but we know we can do better.”

6. Innovation can be used for complex problems.

Cities are responding to an increasingly complex world by using design to tackle more complex, systemic issues, challenging our understanding of how to use design well. By integrating equity and systems design, cities can think of themselves as a platform and a connector tackling sticky challenges while utilizing a portfolio approach has allowed cities to utilize a series of interventions to address a problem from multiple angles.

Florencio Baguio, the Assistant HR Director for the city of Honolulu, is working to address vacancy problems in the city. He believes that addressing this challenge must start with contextualizing jobs and work within Hawaii and the vacancies in the US. With this context in mind, a suite of systemic changes are being explored to address vacancies, including making it easier for people to apply for jobs by reducing minimum qualifications on postings and creating an integrating hiring portal, making it more compelling for people to apply by letting qualified candidates come in at the mid-level of the salary schedule instead of the bottom and making city government a place where people want to stay by creating programs for remote work and flexible work hours. He shared, “You have employees who are able to do their doctor's appointments on a day off, take their parents to medical appointments, spend time with their kids or do whatever because you have one extra day, all that kind of loyalty, you can gain from showing your employees that you're willing to innovate. That kind of stuff really matters.”

7. Innovation can break down entrenched silos.

Doing innovation means collaborating with those who touch a problem. Cities that underwent innovation training often cite cross-departmental collaboration as something they most enjoyed. Collaborating not only helps illuminate how systems challenges require multiple departments to work together but also builds strong relationships that can be used to solve future challenges.

Nyasia Franklin, Program Specialist in the Department of Homeless Services in Columbia, SC, found that applying innovation helped them see just how many city departments touched homelessness, and how this collaboration could open doors to new solutions. She shared, “We collaborated extensively with different departments that I had no idea could make difference in the fight against homelessness. I'm sure we will continue to collaborate.”

8. Going slow can help you go fast.

Taking the time to understand the root of a problem and engage residents can save valuable time and resources down the line. By bringing residents into the creation of new services, cities can move with speed and confidence when implementing initiatives that have already been validated by key stakeholders.

Mayor Luke Feeney, of Chillicothe, OH, saw this paradigm firsthand, sharing, “I feel more responsibility than ever to do [resident] engagement…the benefit of it is to slow down and make decisions that are informed on what’s good for the public…that’s the point of my job.”

9. You can implement innovation in small or big ways.

While the innovation process can be strongest when done slowly and deeply, the tools that make up the process can be applied on their own. For example, learning to conduct fact-finding interviews with relevant parties or how to map an ecosystem are skills that can strengthen existing projects without applying a full innovation process.

We surveyed 96 people who participated in innovation training and they reported that they are using or plan to use the skills they learned on 269 new projects, ranging from DEI to budgeting and community engagement. 95% are already applying the skills they learned to their day-to-day city work. 

10. Innovation is an act of continuous improvement.

Previous innovation work is not sufficient to sustain innovation, rather, innovation is sustained by the everyday work of building trust and relationships. Trust is built when people see the benefits of the work directly, and a holistic innovation strategy will work to continuously show others the success of this work and expand its access.

Balleck Cole, Manager of Civic Innovation in Allentown, says learning innovation techniques has shown city officials the work required to build support for new initiatives in the city. She shared, “I have always pushed the message ‘you build trust one relationship at a time,’ but now people actually believe me.”

These learnings can help build and scale innovation in city government and beyond. By viewing innovation as both a mindset and process and dedicating time to iterate, understand root causes, invest in your employees, and listen to those most impacted when determining solutions, you’ll build a stronger and more resilient culture. This can, in turn, lead to better outcomes for both staff and residents.

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