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Philadelphia’s Internal Innovation Grants Are Fostering New Ideas

The second full round of recipients is a diverse group, with five of the seven selected using technology as a key piece of their innovation work.

Philadelphia recently awarded a series of grants, most of which totaled around $7,500, to projects aimed at fostering innovative solutions to problems, tasks and challenges faced by government.

A city government making an investment in ideas they hope will lead to long-term work or projects — essentially providing seed money — is not all that unusual. Some cities do it systematically, while others regularly sponsor competitive events, often called hackathons. What sets Philadelphia’s recent grants apart from other municipal incentivizing, however, is that they were all bestowed to internal stakeholders, to projects and ideas that came straight from the public servants who work daily in the local government.

This is the second time in roughly three years that Philadelphia has given out internal innovation grants, said Andrew Buss, the city’s deputy CIO for innovation management, and in between the two rounds, there was a smattering of individual awards too. There were seven winners this time in total, culled from a field of 15. Six of the grants were for roughly $7,500, while a seventh was for $1,080. The money came from the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia, which provided it from its annual operating budget.

Project proposals were assessed on five criteria: process improvement, novelty/value creation, delivery of public services, government relations and cross-departmental collaboration. The winners — an eclectic bunch from a wide range of city agencies, from the fire department to public health — were picked by Philadelphia’s Innovation Working Group, which is made up of city employees from across departments.

“We’re pretty excited this year to be back in business and making grants again,” Buss said. “Really, the goal of the fund has always been testing out these ideas that it’s hard to get normal operating dollars to try.”  

He also noted that the Innovation Fund grants don’t exist on their own in a vacuum, but that they’re actually a key part of a wider and ongoing effort in city hall to foster a culture of innovation. This effort has other components as well, including an innovation academy that’s on its sixth cohort, an innovation lab and a fast-growing internal innovation consultancy that in its short life has been called upon 70 times to help city departments.

More information about the exact project that received grant money can be found here. What’s worth noting, though, is that the city currently has two ongoing initiatives that started with grants given out during previous Innovation Fund award sessions, one of which is a bicycle safety course that doubles as a subtle campaign to spread digital literacy, and another that involves the city re-propagating discarded plants for community groups and organizations.

Moving forward, Buss said the idea is for the Innovation Fund awards to be an annual occurrence, one that potentially evolves to have a narrower focus of field. So if the city is, for instance, suffering from more severe annual traffic issues, there is a mechanism in place to direct grant money toward that issue, creating a solid foundation for meaningful innovation.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.