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Louisville, Ky., Works to Foster Institutional Innovation

To make innovation thinking more accessible and commonplace across departments, the city has deployed analog and internal hackathons along with a badges system inspired by the Girl Scouts.

In Louisville, Ky., the thinking is that innovating on a daily basis can be intimidating for a public servant who isn't already in the mindset to do so. So the city is trying out some new things to change that.

This week, the city announced Louisville Metro Badges, an incentive program similar to the one used by the Girl Scouts, except instead of earning badges for designing board games or going camping, Louisville employees get theirs for acts of “breakthrough innovation, continuous improvement and daily work.” This initiative fits into a broader effort at all levels of Louisville to spread what the city calls institutionalized innovation, meaning that innovation work is being done by all departments, not just the tech folks. In addition to the badges program, this year Louisville began variations of the hackathon concept to lessen barriers and foster cross-agency buy-in for tech and innovation work too.

The badge program, however, is the newest of these efforts. There are 25 badges total, covering a wide swath of municipal tech and innovation landscape. Examples of these badges include Voice Activated, which can be earned by participating in a project that uses voice skills through Amazon Echo, Google Home, or other such platforms; Digital Inclusion, which is earned by participating in a low-cost Internet sign-up, a computer refurbishment, digital skills training, or other related task; and Business Intelligence, which is earned by answering a business question with data. There are two tracks — one dubbed Data Scouts and the other Innovation Pioneers — and completion of each earns a total of 10 badges. Getting these badges requires submitting simple evidence of completed tasks, such as screenshots, reports or testimonials.

Michael Schnuerle, Louisville’s chief data officer, described the program as “a way to get people to do more of the sort of things we wanted them to do in a way that was fun and that they could be awarded for.”

Badge recipients can then add their accomplishments to their email signatures or LinkedIn profiles, or if they prefer a more tangible gauge, they can add stickers to plastic cards about the size of an ID. Louisville has also created digital trackers on its city website where employees can track their progress and easily submit evidence to earn their badges. At its most basic level, this is a creative alternative to traditional innovation training efforts like requiring staff to take time out to attend classes or lectures.

This, however, is not the only effort in Louisville that fits that description. Earlier this year, the innovation department put together a kit for analog hackathons, which essentially removes the digital component from the traditional hackathon concept, breaking attendees into groups of three to five people and then giving them a kit of 10 informational transparencies, sized a bit bigger at 11 by 17 inches. The groups are then asked to highlight an example of some info within that piqued members’ interest, a tech solution that could be created with this info, and ideas for the other info they would need to improve the project.

These analog hackathons, which Louisville has organized multiple times, are rapid. Those three steps take between 10 and 15 minutes. It’s basically the first half of a normal hackathon, lacking the second half that involves the actual tech work. The city’s innovation department has so far been pleased with the events, saying each one has yielded different ideas from the same data.

Ed Blayney, Louisville’s innovation project manager, said these sort of hackathons are a great way to get city staffers thinking differently, which leads them to conceptualize projects.

“It’s not necessarily that every single project comes out of a hackathon, but that they come out of hackathon thinking,” Blayney said. “The best projects I’ve had are the ones that combine two completely different departments.”

Cooperation between seemingly unrelated entities has long been a staple of the hackathon format, or at least a desired outcome. The third major concept that Louisville has used to entrench innovation deeper in its culture this year is that of the internal hackathon. Using data from the Waze app, the city held its first internal hackathon: a city-only hackathon that brought technologists together with other staffers. These events aspire for the same creation of projects and ideas that standard hackathons do, while also giving technologists an opportunity to train attendees on new tools.

These new concepts are also built upon existing support for innovation from Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who encourages public servants to set aside a certain amount of time each week for innovation and breakthrough work in addition to their daily tasks.

“This is not asking you to go out and do a random challenge,” Blayney said. “It’s asking you to apply it to your daily work, showing that you’re changing the way you’re doing your job. I think that’s the most powerful thing about it. It’s really about learning skill through experience, rather than through a traditional classroom setting.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.