Rivalry & Competition Can Encourage Civic Innovation

Asked for a three word description of why she was in attendance at the Code for America Summit, city administrator in Savannah, Georgia, said, “Show up Macon!” When Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco addressed the Summit, he cited his city’s position as the “number one city in America” according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek. When Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia spoke to the Summit later in the day, he referred to Philadelphia’s standing as a pioneer in encouraging civic engagement through technology. Mayor Nutter announced the second implementation of the New Urban Mechanics in the nation, to the delight of attendees from Boston, the city that developed the model.

Such competition to be at the forefront of civic innovation and friendly rivalries between cities are more than boasts or posturing. They often encourage innovation in local government to develop and spread. Researchers who studied the diffusion of open data in public transit and the development of real-time scheduling programs for riders found that New York City’s embarrassment at being shown up by Boston encouraged it to act quickly to release real-time scheduling information.

Another study of the deployment of neighborhood information systems in cities across the country found that a driving factor in encouraging participation and successful adoption of the systems was the exclusivity of the group awarded grants. Cities that displayed the logo of the partnering organization on their website gained prestige among their peers, and cities that were not initially part of the partnership wanted to be. They didn’t want to be left behind.

In a variety of contexts, formal competition can spur progress. This explains the abundance of national public and private programs to reward innovation in a variety of sectors: education (the federal government’s Race to the Top Fund), cities (Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge), and big data (NASA’s Tournament Lab), to name just a few. Indeed, Code for America itself operates on this model as cities must apply to participate in the program.

Such challenges have much greater impact than their dollar allotments alone could produce. As agencies strive for the prestige and money brought by such contests, they embrace new ways of thinking and propose new types of projects. Competitions often encourage cross-functional teams that persist after the contest. In some cases, entities implement such programs even if they are not selected as winners of a competition. And contests generate buzz that gives other entities inspiration, ideas and cover when things don’t go well.

As Nigel Jacob of Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics pointed out at the CfA Summit, networks across cities and institutions can effectively spread risk. The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, — an initiative to transform residents’ experience with city services — is doing just that. It is actively working with other cities as they contemplate creating programs of their own.

Its very success allows innovators in other cities to make the case that this model is worthwhile. Competitions publicly reward risk-taking by the first mover, and allow the next participants to enter a new and potentially threatening space. The diffusion of 311 systems and open data throughout the country shows the power of this type of risk management. Now a city official can tell department heads that similar programs were implemented in big cities like New York and Boston and smaller cities like Macon, Ga.and Santa Cruz, Calif. without the world blowing up.

But we are wise to remember that rivalries and competitions can produce problems, too. At the very first stage of an innovative project, there is far less incentive to collaborate if entities know that they are competing for the same scarce resources and the same limited public recognitions for their work. This can result in redundant programs and duplication of work. Challenges that provide limited funding for selected initiatives can sometimes also set up the expectation that other programs are not deserving of resources, or that innovation necessarily requires shoestring budgets. And there can be real problems with sustainability if challenge awards are limited.

Still, innovation in city government can emerge through competition and friendly rivalry. The city staffer from Savannah who told CfA Summit attendees that she was there to “show up Macon,” confessed that she meant it as a joke. But she’s surely onto something.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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