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Encouraging Innovation In Your Local Government

Boston Massachusetts Mayor Thomas Menino has led the charge among urban Mayors for a “new era of shared innovation,”. To back up his push for more innovation in government, Menino in 2010 created the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, to focus on exploring and implementing innovations that enhance City services and operations.

“The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics will help secure Boston’s role as the hub of municipal innovation,” said Mayor Menino. “Boston must find new ways to push the envelope in how we offer services to our various constituents and to make our City and its neighborhoods work better for the families that live here.”

As reported by Nick Judd from TechPresident :

“… Mayor Thomas Menino took two of his most technology-minded staffers — both of whom had years of experience in his five-term administration to match their understanding of new tools and practices — and gave them a mandate to reinvent service delivery in his city. With limited financial resources, the help of a few graduate students, and unfettered access to the rest of the mayor’s cabinet, city advisors Nigel Jacob, a former software developer, and Chris Osgood, a longtime city official, have been given broad ability to pluck innovative ideas from the primordial soup of Boston’s tech, government and entrepreneur communities. Part of their agenda is to open government data, especially if someone needs help extracting a specific dataset from City Hall, but it’s just a small part. When they see an idea they like, they can throw a small amount of city resources behind it and use their positions inside City Hall to get answers and make introductions. And they can form partnerships with outside groups to make ideas into reality.”

“The value that we add is we aggregate risk,” Jacob explained recently. “Our approach has been, if you, Public Works, have something you want to try, but you don’t want it to show up as a crazy Public Works project, you can present it as a New Urban Mechanics project.”

This is as much about communications as it is about results. If a city agency works the way they usually do, issuing a request for proposals that results in a contract with a major firm for a product that has a mammoth price tag, failure is not an option; it’s a potentially career-ending misuse of public money.

The New Urban Mechanics model, on the other hand, is to pick projects with potential, reduce risk by working through partnerships and limited grants, and do as much with connections and savvy as with money. While nobody is expecting any individual product to revolutionize the way the city works, many lightweight projects focused on the same problems just might get more people engaged with city government, and move Boston towards a future where more residents are directly involved in the way the city is run.”

Projects that the Office of New Urban Mechanics has help develop include:

  • Citizens Connect – A mobile application that allows users to submit service requests for problems like graffiti or potholes directly into the work queue of the Department of Public Works.
  • Street Bump – Drivers can set their mobile phones to automatically detect potholes and transmit location information to the city.
  • Community Plan It- An interactive online game to create engagement around public planning .

The key points to encouraging innovation in your local government:

1) Having a leader who is committed to a new era of innovation

2) Employees and graduate students with permission to be creative and unfettered access to key officials

3) Some financial resources

4) The ability to Form partnerships with organizations outside of government

5) The ability to fail

What do you think about Boston’s approach of creating a New Urban Office of Mechanics to encourage innovation?


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Seems like one thing is missing: what about setting baselines and then measuring the ooutcomes of these innovations? Some may fail, which is okay, and it would be good to know what the others actually do to improve the lives of municipal residents.