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10 Need-to-Know Lessons for Government Innovation Teams

A new Bloomberg study of 20 civic tech groups around the world offers tips on how to institutionalize innovation into a working framework.

by / September 5, 2014
Nigel Jacob (pictured in the foreground), co-chair of the Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics which was highlighted in Bloomberg Philanthropies recent study of civic innovation teams. David Kidd

It's unanimous. Every city wants to be innovative. But the word’s ambiguity leaves it open to many interpretations, incantations and applications.

That's why Bloomberg Philanthropies is attempting to put more definition in the word by analysis. In a co-authored study with investment and research firm Nesta, Bloomberg studied the workings of 20 civic tech innovation groups and funneled their insights into a package of 10 tips for cities. The idea: institutionalize some of the ingenuity of innovation, or at the very least, assemble a kind of framework.

The study sits atop numerous interviews, site visits, surveys and a range of analysis. Strategies of the study groups, called “i-teams,” have been evaluated, cultures have been studied, staff skills categorized, impacts and approaches set to yard sticks. Staff sizes of the teams ranged from as low as three all the way up to 200, with a median staff size of roughly 42 people. In terms of public-sector investment, the report showcased levels of government funding for the groups, starting at $330,000 and rising as high as $151 million.

In addition to the observational field study, the report includes six months of office research about the groups that represent only teams set inside, funded from or established by government. U.S. examples include Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, the Washington, D.C. based Investing in Innovation Fund, the New Orleans Innovation Delivery Team, the New York City Innovation Zone and the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity. Yet, beyond this U.S. cohort, the teams are diverse and spread across the globe. A sizable concentration sits in Europe, but a few peripheral teams are located in Asia, South and Central America.

James Anderson, Bloomberg’s government innovation program lead, and formerly communications director for Michael Bloomberg’s when he was New York mayor, led the the study’s investigation. He says apart from plotting points, the study opens the curtains on just how nascent structured innovation is.

“One clear finding is that most teams we profiled focused on the early stages of the innovation process, while many fewer have a hand in growing, scaling and spreading the approaches,” said Anderson.

Wrapping such approaches into their quick 10-lesson tutorial on civic innovation, Anderson and Nesta underscore a few rules of the road. (Download the complete study here.)

1. Eye the Goal
Aligned with the notion to “begin with the end in mind,” the first tip is to craft an innovation group based on a clear goal (or goals). Four of these goals surfaced in the study. The first was to solve specific problems -- such as those emphasized by leadership. The second prioritized a grab for citizen and business engagement in civic processes. A third, called a long-term approach, sought to invest in innovative capabilities of departments and staff. The fourth and final goal, identified from research, was when an innovation team is tasked to refresh whole systems in policy, business models, technology or behavior.

2. Grab Buy-in from Above
Without connected and constant endorsement from leadership, innovation teams are vulnerable. Teams can burst against bureaucratic barriers, languish in a vacuum or wilt under a demand for “business as usual.” The report suggests innovating departments and organizations thrive best when yoked to“authorizing powers,” and especially, when housed inside offices of governors, mayors and senior officials. As a cautionary side note, it was dually emphasized that clout should be a last resort for innovators who must lean on partnerships. persuasion and dialogue.

3. Mix Skills
One of the key ingredients to innovation is having lots of ingredients. Specifically, this means snagging skills outside of government -- the private sector, academia, non-profits and such. Anderson explains that the vision is to take insiders who know government and graft them to outsiders who inject new ideas. He added that outsiders can contribute with skills on a project-by-project basis or through crowdsourcing.

“The research showed that teams are well-served by incorporating a diverse mix of skills – from project management and stakeholder engagement to analysis and communications,” Anderson said. “Bringing perspectives from both inside and outside government is also key, helping to inject fresh thinking and also keep things real.”

4. Funnel Money
Creating a lean funding model for innovation isn’t just thrifty, it’s strategic. And though it appears counterintuitive (for example, how can deep pockets ever be a burden?), when put in practice the study says big budgets are problematic. Fellow departments can point to robust innovation funding as reason to disengage, deferring ownership or responsibility of a project for a comparative “lack of resources.”

“The point isn’t [for innovation teams] to own programs or the associated budgets, but to help galvanize resources, talent, and creativity across the system,” Anderson said.

The preferable option is for innovation teams to be a supporting hand, mobilizing budgets from other agencies and departments for projects.

5. Ensure Value
Valuable service is best seen when it hasn’t been seen before. For innovation teams this translates into actions that illustrate positive contrast against current culture and expertise. Duplicating efforts and inventing rounder wheels are pitfalls to be avoided, the report notes. If innovation teams desire access to department budgets, they need to deliver an inventiveness, culture, insight and forward-thinking mindset that doesn’t already exist. It’s a critical and precautionary warning. The study emphasizes problems that can stem from political leadership changes while emphasizing solid communication to shield teams from naysayers and administrative concerns. 

6. Be Exact
Part of breaking from the herd involves an explicit and separate way of getting things done, whether it's through the sharpness of data, an outpouring of community involvement methods, iterative solutions or another method at problem solving. Specificity demystifies processes while establishing teams. Methods can be combined, but should foster a predicability.


7. Act and Iterate
Nothing gets done if someone doesn’t do something. An admittedly obvious statement, but not so opaque when pitted against approval pyramids, competing goals and the daily back and forth of office work. Success, which is to say productivity, requires a default to action, iteration and rapid experimentation. Early wins and small successes are the mortar in the process. One way to incentivize action is to first secure freedom for quick action from leadership, and next, to limit a team’s initial lifespan to three to five years. The short timeline raises stakes for a team to prove its worth.

“Some of it is about creating and maintaining momentum,” Anderson said. “I-teams are often adept at elevating quick wins, creating curiosity about their process, and generating internal excitement. Some of it also comes down to using specific tactics – rapid prototyping, for example – that emphasize testing things early, getting user feedback and showing forward motion.”

8. Use Handoffs
Innovation teams take on the role of “in-house innovation consultants,” as they hop from one priority area to the next. Teams aren’t meant to maintain and manage projects. They jumpstart and transition. It’s why the study advocates clear handoffs to other departments and staff from the start. Whether a phased approach or immediate, the transition must be outlined in budgets, workflows and legal issues.

“Clear handovers maximize the capacity of these teams by allowing them to wrap up their work in one issue and dive fully into another … Without handovers, we get implementation teams rather than innovation teams and the primary purpose is jeopardized,” Anderson said.

9. Measure Success
Tangible problem solving that's metered and monitored is a habit that tends to keep innovation teams around -- especially when cost savings can be shown. When impacts are quantified, innovation teams have evidence of progress. It also acts as a gauge for pivoting if efforts go astray.



10. Share Success
“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” The study quotes President Harry Truman in its final tip. It’s a reminder to credit leadership, sponsors, partner organizations and any other stakeholders who fit in the mix. The underlying concept, billed by the study as the “single best guarantee” for sustainability, is that shared success incentivizes officials to further support innovation team projects and programs. Political leaders who can leverage success for reelection campaigns, department and agency leaders who gain media praise to establish departments and sponsor organizations with visible returns on their investments are all likely to continue championing the cause of innovation.


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Jason Shueh former staff writer

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

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