Leveraging expertise and building trust between the public and private sector

Fri, 2015-09-25 06:00 -- SCC Staff

By Sandra M. Baer

Is there a better way for the private sector to build trust with city leaders -- one that creates real partnerships with a city?

Can city leaders find a way to get guidance and advice from private sector experts without a "sales pitch" getting in the way of an honest conversation toward next steps?

Is there a more enlightened way to build true collaboration, to accelerate city growth and create a sustainable business model for all stakeholders?

Here is the approach I see most often among cities and companies:

XYZ Corporation sales executive, Paul, is pursuing a city leader for a meeting.  His innovative company is widely admired for its state-of-the-art smart city technologies.

City leader, Laura, is resistant. And legitimately so. Over the past few months, she has been bombarded with companies wanting to sell her a single “point” solution.  Should she take the meeting with this company? What about the company’s competitors or smaller, more agile peers?  She is frankly unclear about the best way to move forward.  And this is the fourth company pitching the same kind of technology innovation. But she is curious and genuinely interested in smart city enhancements. Eventually, and often reluctantly, Laura takes the meeting.

The meeting is set. Paul’s rigorous preparation and research helps him to map out some of the city’s problems.  He plans to listen to Laura as she confirms his ideas, especially the ones that support her decision to buy his products. Certainly, he has the mandate, the incentives and the full intention of winning business. His professional pitch details the innovation and its benefits to the city.  

Missing the big picture
Yet as they shake hands after the meeting, two things are clear.  

  1. Laura is not “ready to buy.”  She appreciates the information and will keep in touch with Paul. She is a bit smarter about the company’s products and is now interested in talking to other companies that can solve the problem.  (Truth is, solving that problem is just one she needs to solve and it is related to several others. She can think of four other colleagues in her department and in others who should have been at the meeting.)  
  2. Paul has made the connection with Laura and will continue to build the relationship. During the meeting, Laura mentioned several interrelated problems and issues -- not all of them solvable by his firm. (Truth is, his approach was pretty narrowly focused on selling a product to Laura. He can think of three other partner companies who should have been at the meeting to truly help her think "big picture" about solutions.)

A better approach
Today, as I view the opportunities to help cities become more vibrant, attractive places, I am confident there is a better approach.

Representing private sector interests, Paul’s first mandate is to understand a city’s problems and priorities, holistically.  What is their stage of "readiness"? What are the barriers the city faces to begin (or to continue) the process of innovation? And who are the champions in the city and in the community that have the influence and the enthusiasm to help the city grow?

Second, he should explore how his company’s products and services fit into bigger solutions, across silos.  What other organizations are a part of those solutions? What other companies can he partner with to truly help Laura and her team set priorities and recommend some early successes? With research and allies in place, Paul is in a better position to reach out to Laura.  

In the meantime, Laura is a thoughtful city leader. She understands the interdependencies between every city sector to connect the dots -- the people, the data, the knowledge, the problems and the opportunities. The idea is to create an internal exchange of ideas and issues that is shared and acted upon.

Laura also sees the opportunity for more collaboration outside the city -- with civic, citizen and private sector players. With support from the mayor and other department heads, Laura forms a smart city team that convenes every month -- specifically to understand the status of each department, the biggest challenges they face and ways in which they can work together.   

Paul’s approach to Laura is now unique.

Top problems need big ideas
Would she be willing to put together a set of 10 questions that map out the city’s top problems? Tough questions that cut across city departments…and answers that may require big ideas from a number of players.

If her smart city team will frame the questions, Paul will bring together a team of experts to think collaboratively with her and other department representatives about the city’s issues.

Once the questions have been set, Paul will work with Laura to determine who should be invited to the roundtable discussion.  They consider: internal city department leaders, civic organizations, universities, non-profits, citizen representatives and private sector companies. As a start, no more than 12 at the table -- others can be invited to "listen only."

The format is a half-day session with a separate facilitator to keep the discussion on track and on time.  No sales pitches are allowed -- only a focus on advice, ideas and recommendations about the 10 questions on the table.

Smarter procurement decisions
At a minimum, this approach brings together the ecosystem of players, focused and ready to listen to each other. Ideally, public sector issues and private sector solutions come together in an open, non-sales setting. More than signing a contract for service, this discussion can be the foundation for a true partnership -- one in which the expertise of leaders from the city, the private sector and the community are revealed and appreciated.  

In fact, this session and ones to follow may or may not result in a sale.  But one thing is certain: There will be a clearer understanding of which actions will help the city and a roadmap for moving forward. I believe that better informed city leaders and a more holistic business approach will lead to smarter procurement decisions.

We recommend this tuned-in approach and are working with city organizations that see the opportunity. Here are two examples:

Mid-Atlantic transit authority
The head of strategic planning for a big city transit organization tasked his "brain trust" to lay out the top issues/problems they need to address over the next year -- focused on "the ridership experience" and how the organization could better hear citizen voices, enhance metrics and analytics, strengthen communications, identify optimal technologies and gain internal and public support for new initiatives.

Six companies invited to the table, with specific instructions to provide "big picture" advice, filled the day with actionable ideas and recommendations. The audience, consisting of representatives from 12 internal departments, actively contributed to the conversation; asking questions and pushing back on some of the advice.    

Follow up is ongoing. And one session is just the beginning to a different kind of dialog. But adjustments to the strategy are in progress. Several of the private sector experts are receiving requests for more help. Most revealing, new collaborations -- between public and private sector players -- are in the works.

East Coast city
Having lost businesses and citizens to the suburbs in 2007-2008, a mid-sized city in Connecticut set out to re-invent itself -- to be a "smarter city."  Using the Council's Smart Cities Readiness Guide as the foundation, the chief innovation officer formed a smart city team -- with the mayor’s endorsement, all departments were required to attend monthly meetings (in person). Their task was to understand each other’s issues and develop an action plan to transform the city.  (According to the CIO, the real benefit is a much improved appreciation of each city leaders’ problems and how they are all interrelated.)

The team identified top problems that cut across departments -- public safety, public works, energy, communications, finance and procurement. Through a set of mentoring sessions, with internal department leaders and selected company invitees, the team became smarter -- about technology choices, financing options and a focused approach to gain support for improving the city’s livability, workability and sustainability.

Today, the city is rejuvenating its image.  It continues to work better as a team and has launched many new initiatives with a variety of private sector partners.

Their process exemplifies a time-saving approach that reflects a clear understanding of:

    • The city’s cross-cutting problems
    • Key stakeholders within city government and within the community
    • An integrated mindset that considers department interdependencies
    • And most important, the opportunity to build trusted, respectful partnerships

We have found that bringing together the ecosystem of players, focused and ready to listen to each other is at the heart of discovering workable solutions. Working side-by-side is the best way to inspire true collaboration.


Sandra M. Baer is a Special Advisor to the Smart Cities Council. As a business development professional, her career has focused on the value of relationships and the connections we develop to increase understanding and mobilize action.

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