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Philadelphia Uses Innovation Fund to Inspire Agencies to Take Action

To encourage city agencies to reimagine and transform their internal and public-facing services, Philadelphia, Penn., has established an accessible and flexible innovation grant process.

The Philadelphia skyline at dusk.
For years, the city of Philadelphia, Penn., has worked to foster innovation among government agencies to facilitate delivery of improved services. A key factor in this effort has been the Innovation Management Team (IMT), which uses the Innovation Fund (IF) to create low-barrier opportunities for city departments to test fresh ideas through pilot programs.

Since 2015, the IF has successfully funded 29 projects through five grant cycles, according to Eliza Pollack, director of innovation. What’s unique about IF projects is they're not necessarily chosen with cost savings or ROI in mind. While there are still grant reports and a support system, the IMT takes a hands-off approach with these projects once they're funded.

Not all IF projects have any clear or measurable outcome, but rather reflect the holistic goal of empowering employees to pursue promising ideas. According to Pollack, the projects communicate an important narrative to residents and communities: The government is striving to make changes for the better.

Over the course of the IF’s existence, IMT has continually refined how grant recipients are determined. Pollack said the goal is to prioritize projects that seem unique or creative and have the most potential to positively impact government services. Projects might follow the lead of initiatives of other cities or feature wholly original concepts. 

While there is a grant application that includes standard questions about budget, stakeholders and other aspects of a project, IMT strives to make the IF very accessible. In other words, a lack of grant-writing experience doesn't exclude a department from applying for and receiving funding, Pollack said.

The IF receives support from the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia, an independent nonprofit looking to improve quality of life for Philadelphians. Notably, 2021 marks the first time the IF received a private-sector donation, with Verizon contributing to the fund. Pollack suggested the partnership with Verizon has started a new narrative about what municipal innovation can look like.

“I think that this year has really highlighted the true potential of the public sector,” Pollack said. “It’s really exciting to see if we can continue to build relationships and build investments with the public sector, and what that does with our capacity to try new things.”

Six New Projects

Most recently, the city announced a wave of six pilots funded by the IF. The projects vary considerably in their aims, but each seeks to add something new to Philadelphia and the way departments serve citizens.

Two projects selected in this cycle were presented by Philadelphia Parks and Recreation. One project centers on the creation of Rec Radio, a free-to-listen radio station to inform and entertain the community. The other project is an urban wood design competition, where local youth organizations will use salvaged park wood to create furniture prototypes.

A pair of workforce-related projects have also received funding and were conceived thanks to realizations brought about by COVID-19. The Philadelphia Department of Commerce's Office of Workforce Development is piloting The Achievers Initiative, a free educational program that prepares individuals to receive a high school equivalency credential and provides a financial award to program completers. The Philadelphia Fire Department, meanwhile, will pilot remote training for its workforce.

Another project in this cycle involves meal delivery kits, an idea from the Philadelphia Department of Prisons (PDP). Produce grown in PDP’s orchard will be distributed to formerly incarcerated individuals in reentry programs.

The final, and arguably most interesting, project is the Equitable Community Engagement Toolkit, which will be developed by the Mayor’s Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service (MOCEVS) in equal partnership with the Service Design Studio in the Chief Administrative Office.

The inspiration behind this project is simple: Vulnerable individuals living in historically underinvested communities were hit harder by the effects of the pandemic, so the need for equitable engagement has increased over the past year. The toolkit will provide resources, training and tools to teach best practices to those working in underinvested neighborhoods so that community members can be reached more effectively. 

The logic behind the toolkit is simple: Barriers to engagement can cause missteps among practitioners working to bring programs to underinvested communities, said Amanda Gamble, the city’s chief service officer and the driver of the toolkit project. For example, if a department is offering a program in a community experiencing a digital divide, and the department only posts about the program on social media, it may not reach the community at all. Another example Gamble provided was the failure to translate materials for community members who speak a language other than English.

The toolkit project will seek feedback from both employees and community members in order to develop more all-encompassing solutions, according to Gamble. To compensate community leaders who engage with the program and offer feedback, MOCEVS will offer financial compensation. 

“It’s really important that you’re meeting people where they are and understanding the ways to connect to these underinvested communities,” Gamble said.

Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.