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Philadelphia’s Internal Innovation Consultancy Gets Results

The consulting program is an internal version of a service that government has long had to contract from the outside, and it fits in with Philadelphia’s extant Innovation Academy, Lab and Fund programs.

Eliza Pollack provides a unique service within Philadelphia’s municipal government.

As the city’s assistant director of innovation strategy, Pollack runs its Innovation Consulting program, essentially facilitating workshops that apply innovation culture to the challenges Philadelphia’s internal departments face. These range from assisting with foster care placement to boosting diversity. The exact approach of the workshops varies depending on the nature of the challenge — all are custom-tailored to participants — but in general this means finding engaging ways to instruct public servants on how to use human-centered design and other strategies in their work.

And so far, the program has proved to be a popular one. Since the first workshop took place back in late 2015, Pollack has conducted a total of 75 workshops that have involved 40 clients. The vast majority — 70 percent, to be exact — have been with city departments and their staff. The other 30 percent, however, have involved an external component, which usually means nonprofit groups, universities and even the occasional private-sector partner.   

The service is the latest tool in Philly’s evolving approach to innovation work in city hall. Innovation work is perhaps one of the most structurally varied departments from city to city. In Philadelphia, the local government has a designated Office of Innovation Management that oversees a number of programs aimed at fostering culture change. Pollack’s Innovation Consulting program grew out of this. Other components include an Innovation Academy, Innovation Lab and Innovation Fund.

The consulting is perhaps most closely related to the academy, which also seeks to train city employees on how to deploy innovation and creative problem-solving strategies in their work. The primary difference here is that the consulting service is conducted with a specific challenge or project in mind. So whereas city staff from the housing department might attend the academy to learn the tenants of human-centered design, they would go to the consulting program asking for Pollack’s assistance in how to use innovation to solve an exact problem.

The effort was started after city employees began to hear about the academy and reach out to the office to ask for more help, Pollack said. It's relatively simple: a client comes to the office, an initial planning conversation takes place and Pollack discusses their goals, ideal outcome and basic stats, such as their timeline or how many employees might attend.

Workshops have been as short as a single afternoon session or as long as six months of regular engagements. After the conversations, Pollack puts together a plan drawing from her knowledge of human-centered design and other innovation academy tools. She stays in regular touch with the clients, making sure that the ideas and strategies they develop are working. In other words, there is often an element of human-centered design to these workshops about human-centered design.

The actual sessions that take place involve straight talk about what innovation work can and cannot help departments accomplish, with Pollack setting a tone that is blatantly outcome-based.

“We’re not here to dabble,” she said. “We’re here to work, and I’m going to facilitate a series of activities meant to facilitate outcomes in specific and creative ways.”

Cecilia Rivas is the city’s director of intervention services and resource development within its department of human services, and she is one of the clients that has worked with Pollack and the Innovation Consulting program. Rivas and her department were trying to facilitate better relationships between foster parents, biological parents and the children involved in the foster care system.

“Bringing together such a diverse group of stakeholders — including people who aren’t traditionally a part of a government initiative — it can be uncomfortable to be in a conference room setting,” Rivas said. “We brought in Eliza for a new way to engage with each other and to bring in new energy.”

In this case, the workshops Pollack set up took place once a month for five months. Rivas and Pollack would discuss goals, and then Pollack would go over their ideas for achieving these goals, returning to Rivas with tweaks.

“We spent just as much time preparing as we did in workshops,” Rivas said.

During the workshops, Pollack divided the parents — both foster and biological — and children into different groups, had them sit at different tables and then got them up and moving around the room, clustering around whiteboards with colorful sticky notes and markers as they came up with ideas on improving the city services they receive. Rivas remembers that the discussions around a complex issue became fun and playful.

Rivas and her team liked the experience so much, they went on to take the strategies Pollack taught them back to their everyday work, and they also now encourage other departments to reach out and participate in the consulting program.

Steve Preston is Philadelphia’s first deputy diversity and inclusion officer, and he worked with Pollack to facilitate an innovation consulting workshop that involved all the leaders of the city’s major departments. The idea was to use innovation strategies to foster improved diversity throughout the local government. Preston found that having time to focus on an issue that often gets lost in day-to-day operations was incredibly helpful.

“Even though department heads have meetings together all the time,” Preston said, “hiring practices are not necessarily the No. 1 thing they’re discussing. It was great to have a focused conversation on that with all the department heads at once.”

After three days of hours-long meetings, every department head left with a tangible plan to foster better inclusion, Preston said.

In the early days of the consulting program, Philadelphia made its Innovation Academy graduates available to conduct workshops, but the office found just having learned about the strategies didn’t always lend itself to teaching the strategies.

The next step in the consulting program’s evolution will be an innovation consulting course, Pollack said. It will be an eight- to 10-week curriculum, wherein she teaches others in city hall how to do her work as an innovation consultant, how to teach these strategies, interact with clients and really expand the capacity of the work.

To date, Pollack has done 65 of the city’s 75 innovation consulting workshops, and putting other innovation consultants in play would really help her expand its current capacity.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.