How cities are using innovation funds to spur new thinking

Fri, 2014-12-05 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

In an era when most cities are strapped for cash, the opportunity to win part of a $1 million pool to improve your department should be a huge motivator. That’s the idea behind innovation funds, internal city competitions designed to inspire staff to find creative ways to serve the community better at lower cost.

Such funds are popping up in more cities. Portland, Ore., is one of the latest. Los Angeles has also just launched one. But based on the early ideas generated from these efforts, some are finding the innovation funds themselves are in need of a little innovation.

How the innovations funds work
Innovation funds are designed to create more of an entrepreneurial start-up mentality within city departments. Psychologically, the funds are designed to be a jackpot that inspires groundbreaking ideas. Practically, the funds provide the money needed to cover the start-up costs for implementing them.

Cities that have done this for a while have made some dramatic improvements. Over the years New York City’s Fund to Improve NYC has created family justice centers to help domestic violence victims, provided the opportunity for those living in poverty to attain better-paying jobs, and lowered energy costs by covering the roofs of buildings with a reflective material.

Baltimore, which is more of a blueprint for Portland’s program, has used its innovation funds to install smart parking meters, automate and make paperless its food and health licensing, and finally switch its crime lab to digital photography to reduce paper and labor costs.

Innovative ideas not innovative
But Portland’s mayor and the task force that evaluated the proposals were disappointed with the ideas generated in the first year of its innovation fund.

“None of the proposals radically rethought the way the city does business,” the task force wrote. “Rather, we were surprised that many of the proposals had not already been implemented using resources within bureaus’ current budgets.”

The ideas included using demand-based pricing for parking in a busy area, updating its landslide maps, and sharing some housing bureau data with other organizations to reduce data entry. The fire department also won funding for a smartphone app that tells citizen volunteers if there’s someone nearby in cardiac arrest and directs them to the nearest defibrillator.

Nearly a third of Portland’s first-year innovation fund went to a program that shares data with the Internal Revenue Service, designed to help the city crack down on people cheating on their taxes. A quarter of the fund went to help the transportation department map its capital improvement projects and coordinate decisions.

Opening the competition
Portland thinks that part of the problem was that relatively few people were allowed to submit proposals. Its first competition was open only to bureau directors. Ten participated, submitting a total of 22 plans.

This year, it’s opening the competition to all city employees, a change that’s designed to uncover truly innovative ideas from all levels of government. It’s also reducing the burden on those who have ideas. The submission form has been simplified to make sharing ideas easier.

And just as the innovation fund is designed to jumpstart good projects, Portland is also taking steps to jumpstart good ideas. The city is opening up workshops and training opportunities to help staff think more creatively.

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