Advancing PhilanthropyBloomberg Philanthropies Funds Innovation Delivery Teams to Help Cities Tackle Problems
Photo Credit: Edward Reed
In 2001, while walking through Brooklyn with key aides, New York businessman and mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg noticed a leaking fire hydrant. “Whom would you call to get that fire hydrant fixed?” Bloomberg asked an aide. After a moment of silence, he was told that the responsible party was the Department of Environmental Protection. “Who would guess that?” Bloomberg replied. “You see a fire hydrant—you kind of associate that with the fire department, don’t you?”
Once back at his office and determined to report the problem, Bloomberg opened up the New York City phone book to find the number for the DEP. He was astonished to learn that doing so required locating it from among the 14 pages of city telephone listings. He wondered why there wasn't a centralized call center—with one number to access it—for city services, which would greatly enhance the city’s accessibility to its residents. Creating such a center became one of Bloomberg's campaign promises. When he eventually won the mayoral race, he followed through on reducing those 14 pages to one centralized and simple phone number—311.
As a businessman, Bloomberg understood the need for innovative solutions and ensured that as mayor, his administration would focus on identifying and implementing them. However, this process was not easy; there was no systematic way for Bloomberg to learn from other cities. Also, the bureaucratic silos of municipal government made it difficult to foster solutions that cut across departments. Bloomberg countered these challenges by hiring a top-notch staff that was given both time and resources to seek cross-cutting solutions, resulting in a number of innovations like the 311 system.
Drawing from the knowledge gained during his many years as New York’s mayor, as well as input from other municipalities worldwide, Bloomberg began asking some hard questions about what stood in the way of such innovation. In the spring of 2011, Bloomberg hosted a small gathering of mayors. Among other topics, they discussed why innovation in the public sector is so hard. “It was notable that across that table, the barriers were very much the same,” recalls James Anderson, who oversees government innovation programs for Bloomberg Philanthropies. “They increasingly want to deal with these issues that cut across agencies, across levels of government, but they are not organized in their offices to deal with those issues in a surefire way.”
Thus was born Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Project, which, among other initiatives, committed $24 million in 2011 to fund Innovation Delivery Teams in five U.S. cities.
Overcoming common barriers to innovation
America’s largest cities face increasing demands from their constituents, even as their resources diminish. Given the prevailing social, demographic, economic, and environmental trends, these challenges are unlikely to abate any time soon. While state and federal governments use policy to effect change, city governments are on the front lines, directly responsible for executing change efforts. Ultimately, many of society’s problems, from handgun violence to homelessness and climate change, will be solved—or not—in our cities.
But innovation is a tremendous challenge, due to three particular barriers: silos that prevent collaboration on cross-cutting issues; limited funding for new initiatives; and the blend of talent in government itself, with longstanding civil servants working alongside relatively short-lived political administrators. The last challenge is particularly cumbersome, and can exacerbate the others. Civil servants have few incentives to rally for change, and more incentive to wait out the current administration to minimize offending longstanding constituencies and relationships. Because change efforts are typically a risk until there is a positive effect to show for them, it’s not surprising that civil servants are slow to embrace the flavor of the month coming from the mayor’s office, when history has shown that they may just be asked to undo it when the next mayor arrives.
To spur change, the Innovation Delivery Team Initiative funds a group of people who sit outside of all municipal departments and report directly to the mayor. These teams look across agencies and functions of government in their cities to address critical priorities. The Initiative borrows from successful models used around the world, including Sir Michael Barber’s approach to change in the United Kingdom, which championed a relentless focus on results. The Initiative also incorporates lessons from New York City, Malaysia, Maryland, Louisiana, and other areas. The result? A detailed “playbook” with tactical advice on how teams can generate solutions and deliver results.
Winning cities: What set them apart
As noted above, 2011 Bloomberg Philanthropies chose to fund Innovation Delivery Teams in five cities—Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Memphis, and New Orleans. Why these five? Bloomberg Philanthropies recognized that for these changes to take root, they needed the right seed beds and sustained cultivation. The foundation sought cities with strong mayor forms of governance, that were committed to innovation and reform, and whose mayors were in the first 18 months of their first terms in office. This would give the teams sufficient runway for solutions to take off.
To ensure the initiatives would truly be city-led, each city hired its own team and is focusing on the challenges that matter most locally, ranging from homicide reduction to small business growth. Bloomberg Philanthropies is not trying to spread specific solutions to these challenges – it recognizes that those need to be defined by local leaders – but rather a proven way to make innovation happen in government in any area of concern to the mayor.
Planning to learn
Bloomberg Philanthropies complements its investment with robust technical assistance and a peer-to-peer network that helps cities learn from each other's successes and failures. And while the Innovation Delivery Teams are working directly in only five cities, the scope of the Mayors Project for this initiative is much grander. To that end, the Bloomberg Philanthropies engaged New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, which will help document and share knowledge with other cities, as well as with grantmakers and academics.
By creating the peer-to-peer network and engaging NYU to document the work on the ground, the Innovation Delivery Team initiative has thoughtfully set the stage for any municipality in the world to learn from these teams. While the jury is still out on whether this initiative will prove successful, there are signs of early progress and it provides a compelling approach to addressing local problems.
Innovation has been difficult for government, and philanthropy can help government fill this capability gap.
Bloomberg Philanthropies restricted funds' use to specific capacity elements within city government. Donors seeking to fund government directly may similarly look to identify how to restrict dollars to maximize results.
Bloomberg Philanthropies built learning and sharing into their initiative from the start.