Over the past three years, Philadelphia has developed a three-tier approach to improving the way municipal government uses tech to better serve the public by deploying a trio of similarly named initiatives: the Innovation Lab, Innovation Academy and Innovation Fund. Now, city officials say a fourth facet, one that is advisory in nature, has evolved — and it could be the future of civic tech in the city.
Dubbed Innovation Consulting, the program is a simple one. City staffers who have graduated from the Innovation Academy make themselves available to share what they’ve learned with departments throughout city hall. Andrew Buss, Philadelphia’s director of innovation management within the Office of Innovation and Technology, described Innovation Consulting as a “logical next step,” one that tackles long-standing city challenges with fresh and, presumably, innovative eyes.
“It’s still a young program frankly, and what we wanted to do was to be able to use that infrastructure we created through the fund and the lab and academy to take the next step,” Buss told Government Technology. “Eventually with this innovation stuff, you have to show that this is doing something, it’s adding value.”
The consulting began accidentally as more city workers went through the Innovation Academy, which has so far graduated four cohorts of 18 or 19 participants per year. It has since crystallized into something more structured. Buss described the Innovation Consulting program as a series of workshops that are set up after graduates of the academy speak with the department they plan to train, learning the problems they face. The graduates then apply innovation principles — things like thinking about which solutions provide the most value with the least difficulty, or considering who primary stakeholders are so you can serve them more efficiently — to the challenges the department has called them in to combat.
City officials are hopeful that the Innovation Consulting program will also eliminate the need for pricey external consultants. In addition to being available to city departments, Philadelphia is also making its consultants open to outside institutions that work with them. Currently, two staff members that work with Buss inside the Office of Innovation and Technology organize the program, fielding requests and setting up the initial meetings.
The consultants then make themselves available on a volunteer basis. To become a consultant, one need only have graduated from the Innovation Academy, which, like the other programs in the tier system, was started in 2014. In addition, the network of consultants includes some extra members that sit on the Innovation Fund advisory group.
The evolution of the consulting program took place amid mild uncertainty about the city government’s continued dedication to civic tech. When Mayor Jim Kenney was inaugurated in 2016, he gained a reputation in some circles as being opposed to operating in any way similar to what his predecessor might have done. His predecessor, Mayor Michael Nutter, held office for eight years, a period during which the city earned accolades for its burgeoning tech prowess.
The Innovation Lab, Innovation Academy and Innovation Fund were all projects that took hold under Nutter, and there was some question as to whether Kenney would continue them, particularly after Charles Brennan was put in place to lead the Office of Innovation of Technology, having his title subsequently changed from chief innovation officer to chief technology officer.
The city’s commitment to innovation, however, remains strong, and Buss said any changes were more a matter of organization than anything else. In the past, his team was entrenched in city hall’s IT group, whereas under the new administration they report to the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). The work, in other words, continues, just in a new place.
The thinking, Buss said, is that the work done by the CAO is more in line with the performance-based efficiency improvements his team seeks to ultimately foster. Christine Derenick-Lopez, the chief administrative officer, voiced support for the innovation work, specifically the ideas and insights from academy graduates who are powering the consulting.
“Our team in the CAO works each day to make government better,” Derenick-Lopez told Government Technology via email. “This can mean things like improving procurement or updating the city’s technology applications, but it also involves supporting employees who can bring fresh thinking to municipal challenges by developing new ideas and trying them out. Our approach to innovation acknowledges that complex problems aren’t typically solved by a single employee, but rather through cross-departmental collaboration that brings together multiple perspectives.”
Under the new administration, more support has come for innovation work in the form of the Digital Literacy Alliance, a 19-organization collective that involves a plethora of major city stakeholders, including the Mayor’s Policy Office, Comcast, Verizon and many others. Its stated goal is to alleviate the digital divide in Philadelphia by developing strategy, overseeing existing seed funds and raising more money. That group is launching with $850,000 in seed money, including a $500,000 grant from Comcast and a $350,000 grant from Verizon. Its work will complement and support the innovation efforts already in place.
Philadelphia’s Innovation Academy was initially founded in partnership with Philadelphia University (PhilaU), and Buss estimated that it has now been used by a representative from every department in the city. The school also collaborated with the city on the Innovation Lab, an actual physical space that gives municipal workers an area to meet and collaborate with the technology community. The Innovation Fund is the money that powers these endeavors, drawing inspiration from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ challenge.
While Buss said he’d love to be able to paint the new Innovation Consulting program as part of some master plan crafted by leadership to continue growing the civic innovation landscape in the city, the reality is that they taught a bunch of their people about innovation, and, lo and behold, those folks came up with a great idea.
“Sometimes things come up, and they seem pretty cool," Buss said, "and you just got to go with it."
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.