Philadelphia Works to Embed Innovation in the City's People, Places, Processes

The theory is that if these three things are connected and "bump together" in intelligent ways, some really interesting work can be done within government.

by / January 7, 2015
This extensive mural that depicts innovation in Philadelphia – past and present – decorates the city's innovation the lab, where city employees can step out of their daily routine to spend time focusing on innovation, ideation and problem-solving. City of Philadelphia

Philadelphia has been busy adding to its Office of Innovation and Technology workforce by hiring -- in three years' time -- 20 employees, some with creative titles like procurement advocate, data scientist and, soon, storyteller.

According to Adel Ebeid, the city's chief innovation officer, the new talents and titles are deliberate choices for the city to build up its innovation capacity, which is a means for the city to answer internal issues with creative solutions and to make external connections with its citizens and the local tech community.

"What's important to me is that we try to source innovation capacity in government so that it's not a single person that's advocating for this type of change, but rather it becomes almost a mindset," Ebeid said.  

But building human capacity is just one part of the city's plan; a larger movement is to embed innovation in the city's people, places and processes, according to Andrew Buss, director of innovation management for Philadelphia. 

"The thing I really like about the work, that I haven't seen in any other city, is I really like our approach of trying to connect the three pieces -- people, place, process," he said. "Our theory is that if you make them connect and bump together in intelligent ways, you'll be able to do some really interesting work within government."

Just last month, the city hired a data scientist, who is joining a data intern and data services manager to understand the city's data, how to use it and how to present it creatively with visualizations. According to Ebeid, the city's data scientists must have the right technology and analytical skills, but also an understanding of what the public wants so that the data can be open but also useful.

The data scientist role will help the city facilitate its recently released open data strategic plan, which discusses the city's goal to facilitate a more formal open data process that can be replicated. 

As part of the plan, the office is undertaking an inventory of Philadelphia's thousands of data sets spread across more than 50 departments so that departments can view the city's data, prioritize it and share it, adding to the city's more than 150 data sets on its open data portal. 

"Ultimately it's the departments owning their open data programs and making their own open data policy decisions," said Tim Wisniewski, the chief data officer for the city. "We're here to help them through that."  

Innovating Procurement

The innovation happening with open data complements the city's already successful digital inclusion program, Buss said, which consists of more than 50 public computing centers throughout the city. 

That link to the outside world is also encompassed in another new city position: the procurement advocate, who serves as a go-between, engaging the local technology community and government throughout the procurement process. 

"I think that's a really interesting role -- it's the idea that we can try to improve the relationship between the small IT vendor community doing business with the city," Buss said. "So, make it a more transparent process, a more easy-to-understand process, and make it a more diverse pool of vendors."  

The hires have been made possible by the city improving its internal operations and investing the resulting savings in an innovation agenda, which includes the expanded workforce.   

When Ebeid first joined the city as chief innovation officer in 2011, the innovation "bench," he said, consisted of one person, who was leading a federal grant project at the time.   

"It was really clear that what the city lacked was a deep bench where it could source innovation throughout government," he said, "and then follow through on projects that were externally focused like open data, civic technology or civic transformation." 

In 2015, the city will continue to expand its workforce, adding more data scientists, a solution architect and even a story teller, or someone who can communicate the city's innovation story and progress to people within and outside of government, Ebeid said.  

In addition to new employees, Ebeid has shifted around some existing ones to new roles, such as Buss, who was previously director of public programs. "My position became director of innovation management with the premise that we can sort of shape and structure innovation inside city government," he said.

Building Innovation Capacity

The combination of hiring new employees with new perspectives and using existing ones who know city processes, is key to building that innovation capacity, Buss said. 

In addition to employees within the office, the city is making an innovator investment that will be seen throughout city government: Philadelphia has entered into a public-private partnership with Philadelphia University. The city will use the university's undergraduate innovation degree as the basis for a certificate in municipal innovation -- the first of its kind -- to give employees creative problem solving skills and tools. 

"So it's not just about bringing in folks from the outside; it's also about investing in the team that we have," Wisniewski said. 

The innovation academy, which is funded by the office, covers the principals of innovation and topics like systems analysis, GIS and team building. And early outcomes from its 38 graduates from across departments show they are working together on common projects, Buss said.  

While the city is building a human capacity for innovation, it needed a place for people to collaborate and advance their innovative thinking, Ebeid said. That's why in August 2014 it opened an innovation lab.

"It doesn't resemble anything like government," Ebeid said. "It's a very fresh, creative collaboration space where [academy] graduates can come in and collaborate with folks, with their peers in the private sector, academia and nonprofits."

One goal for next year, Ebeid said, is for decision-makers to present their problems or "pain points" in the space to a pool of innovators who can then work and collaborate on solutions," he said. Buss added the lab is open for people across departments to use, and that his team within the office uses the space to meet and work on projects.

The final formal piece of the city's innovation management strategy has been the creation of an innovation process. This has been done, Buss said, by forming a cross-departmental working group, defining a process around choosing and implementing new ideas, and investing in those ideas via an innovation fund. 

The result is that five innovation projects have now been funded, and the office will work on implementing them and assessing their impact before another round of projects are undertaken, Buss said.   

Although each piece stands on its own, the fund and the structure around the innovation process are intertwined with the place where innovation happens and the people who make it happen -- for instance, many of the working group members are innovation academy graduates, and the group's work is generally done in the innovation lab, Buss said. 

"The idea is to really get those three pieces to work together and complement one another," Buss said.  

For all the city's investment in innovators and innovation, Ebeid said it has its eye on some larger outcomes fueled by the mayor's office, including having a more informed citizenry, turning the city into a place where people come and stay, and making Philadelphia an international brand and destination.

What's happening now to reach those goals may look like a couple new hires, but looking more closely at all the innovation pieces, it signals a new direction for city government, Ebeid said. 

"Government always has good intentions, but we get mired into the day-to-day running of things and there's hardly any time to step back and really think differently and creatively about how to solve the usual problems," he said. 

The paradigm shift, Ebeid added, is for government to talk about its problems, and then for government employees and stakeholders with the tools and the talent to come up with creative solutions.  

"That is really the kind of future transformation we are looking for from the inside," he said.

Jessica Hughes Contributing Writer

Jessica Hughes is a regular contributor to Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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