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Data Fuels Bloomberg Model for Urban Innovation

Jim Anderson explains the $45 million expansion of Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Team Program to 12 new cities.

This week 14 cities celebrated a $45 million funding announcement by Bloomberg Philanthropies to initiate a series of innovative civic projects over the next three years.

James Anderson, Bloomberg’s head of government innovation, is coordinating the effort under the direction of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Winning cities, he said, will receive anywhere from $400,000 to $1 million annually to support what the philanthropy calls its Innovation Teams, or i-Teams, tasked to gather data on civic challenges and execute data-based solutions. Projects are expected to begin on Jan. 1, 2015 and will represent the second round of funding since the i-Team Program was officially piloted with five cities in 2011. The second round’s winners include 12 cities within the U.S. and two in Israel — Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem.

The American cities include Albuquerque, N.M.; Boston; Centennial, Colo.; Jersey City, N.J.; Long Beach, Calif.; Los Angeles; Mobile, Ala.; Minneapolis; Peoria, Ill.; Rochester, N.Y.; Seattle; and Syracuse, N.Y.

To elaborate more on what’s ahead for the cities, Anderson spoke with Government Technology about how the funding will create capacity for innovation. Below are his comments.

Government Technology: Why did you renew the philanthropic program for a second time and what’s envisioned for the i-Team program long term?

Jim Anderson, director of Government Innovation at Bloomberg Philanthropies:
We believe cities need to get better at generating and implementing bold new approaches. The challenges they face are diverse, many and big and we’re trying to promote tested tools and strategies that help them generate new ideas.

The Innovations Team program is a great example. We’ve tested the initiative over the past three years in five cities [since 2011]. Mayors [Memphis' A.C.] Wharton, [Chicago's Rahm] Emmanuel, [Louisville's Greg] Fischer, [Atlanta's Kasim] Reed and [New Orleans' ] Mitch Landrieu helped to test and refine this model. All of them had tremendous results using the team and the four-part process that we promote. Based on that success — and the incredible demand from mayors around the world in innovation models — we’ve made a $45 million investment for expansion.

GovTech: Do you see that funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies going on perpetually for the i-Team program or evaluated after each iteration?

Anderson: You’re talking to us at the outset of a new three-year investment so our hopes are high and our confidence in this model is significant, but we’re just now beginning work with 14 new cities and we’ll be working with them over the next few years to see how they perform. Our expectations are high. One of the things that the pilot phase showed us is that this is an approach to public problem solving [that worked] in five very different cities under mayors with different leadership styles against a broad range of issues spanning from murder rate reduction to customer service. And we believe it has a lot of potential to help many, many more cities solve problems more effectively.

GovTech: What distinguished the selected cities from the 90 cities that applied for the program?

Anderson: No. 1, there was an incredible commitment to innovation, to shaking things up and doing things in different ways. No. 2, there was a deep understanding of the innovation delivery model of this particular [i-Team] approach to solving problems, and then third, a commitment to integrating this approach into the way cities solve their priority challenges. We saw a real diversity amongst the applicants and were excited about that diversity. I think one of the things we’ll see in this next round of grants is cities taking the now-tested methodologies and applying it some different ways within their city halls — leveraging different offices of performance management, offices of innovation — creating broader culture change within those city halls as they go about this work.

The other thing I would just point out is that demand for innovation models is global. Last summer we created a report with Nesta, [a research firm], and that report highlighted 20 innovation teams and public service innovation labs from around the globe and really demonstrated that this is a global phenomenon. Mayors everywhere are facing incredible pressure and need to rethink their approaches. They’re constantly being asked to change and adapt, and they’re looking for structures and viable methodologies that will help them to do that effectively.

With that in mind, we’re really excited to expand our innovation program to international cities, Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, both of which have been following the program for some time and have expressed interest. We invited them to apply and they gave us incredibly exciting proposals. So we’re very excited to work with these ambitious and innovative mayors in Israel and bring them into our network of innovation team practitioners that will now include almost 20 cities — if you include the first five that piloted this program in the U.S.

We’re going to support a network of innovation team practitioners to help them share their secrets of success, highlight lessons learned, avoid mistakes others have made, and move us all forward together faster.

GovTech: That explanation actually segues perfectly into my next question, which is, how does the i-Team program hope to encourage and institutionalize this kind of innovation?

Anderson: Really, it’s the question of the hour, and the impetus behind the program. Increasingly, we see mayors thinking about innovation as a process — as a core capacity that they can nurture and grow over time — and that’s really what the innovation teams are all about. One of the very exciting things that came out of the first round of grants is that all of those five cities have started mainstreaming their innovation delivery teams onto the public taxpayer support. So while the teams were initially funded with philanthropic dollars from Bloomberg Philanthropies, those mayors recognized the value of these teams, and the desire to keep doing business this new way are moving the teams onto taxpayer roles.

So that’s really exciting when you think about sustainability and one of the things that we were obviously looking at.

GovTech: How does the use of data and technology factor into the methodologies used by the i-Teams?

Anderson: We’re big believers in the essential role of data in all aspects of innovation: from the critical and often overlooked role of data in establishing the size and scope of a problem to understanding its root causes in the community. Data is important in scoping the problem. Data becomes essential in establishing performance metrics to understand if your innovation is working, to pilot it, to test it, to learn from those early experiments and to strengthen innovation over time and through implementation.

Mike Bloomberg is a very strong believer in the connection between data and innovation and this program very much embodies the marriage of those two things.

GovTech: Looking at that traditional question one often hears in government about that need to break down silos — or inspire collaboration between departments and outside organizations — how do i-Teams foster this kind of behavior?

Anderson: Good i-Teams are great at silo busting. It’s very much a part of the DNA of the program. When we originally talked with mayors in 2010, we asked them, “What were the key barriers to innovation” and so many of them responded by saying, “We want to deal with horizontal issues that cut across various agencies, sectors and levels of government but we don’t have dedicated resources or a model to let us organize in this way.”

The innovation teams are absolutely structured to think about cross-cutting horizontal challenges and to work across those boundaries in order to galvanize people and talent and resources in shared purpose. It’s a huge barrier to innovation in the public sector and it’s one of these things that innovation teams do really well in addressing.

GovTech: If you look at the i-Team innovation process, can you summarize it or outline key components each team will leverage in the months ahead?

Anderson: I’ll speak specifically about the approach we’re following which is, No. 1, use data to understand the problem you’re trying to fix. No. 2, use a range of tools to identify powerful new ideas to open innovation and other techniques to bring new voices into the conversation. No. 3, develop a rock-solid implementation plan and strong meaningful partnerships — where everyone’s role is clear from the outset. And No. 4, to use data-driven performance management and delivery: setting targets, using routines and meetings with the mayor [or leadership] to understand where you are, [what are] the barriers, and the strategies to work around those challenges over time so you can move your projects forward.

GovTech: And then I have just one more question in regard to leadership, how is mayoral leadership significant when crafting innovation projects in cities?

Anderson: It’s absolutely essential, and the more radical the innovation the more important leadership becomes. Mayors play an essential role in articulating the need for change. They let front-line staff see when current services are underperforming or missing the mark; they galvanize resources; they can ask people to work horizontally when resources and structures are typically organized vertically; they create incentives for staff to take risks and stick their necks out; they compel people to solve bureaucratic roadblocks and barriers and to keep on pushing even when change is difficult.

And then I think mayors are really important when maintaining momentum over time. Creating lasting change on these big complicated issues isn’t an overnight job. It takes persistence and a commitment to stick with these issues over time. Time and time again, we see mayors playing an essential role in keeping that momentum going and staff engaged for the distance.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.