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I Don’t Have the Answers! Do You?

I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t have all the answers, and neither do my friends and family. If I want to get the best and most robust information, I have to go public with my problems, because the collective knowledge is so much greater than the individual.

Just think how many tips you can get on Facebook with one simple ask: “What’s the best recipe for banana bread?

Governments are now starting to rely on the innovative insights of the masses too. Both in San Jose and Nashville, the local governments are crowdsourcing their city’s most intractable problem: poverty.

In a piece in Governing Magazine, former Chattanooga, Tennessee Mayor Ron Littlefield highlighted how both Nashville and San Jose are relying on their cities’ assets, country music’s culture of creativity and Silicon Valley’s technical know-how to find solutions.

I sat down with Littlefield for GovLoop’s State and Local Spotlight interview, and he told me while the concept of citizen engagement is not new, the method of outreach is certainly different.

“There is a magic in public participation, but it had to be true public participation. You have to listen to people, you have to act on what they were recommending, and you had to have a two-way conversation with public,” said Littlefield.

2,300, is the number of homeless people currently living in Nashville, and19 percent is the number of people living below the poverty line. Those are numbers, the city says, are “unacceptable.”

To help, Nashville is implementing three core components of its citizen-focused action plan:

  1. Ideas to Reality, which will utilize the city’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center to encourage people to take ownership of a problem and do something about it;
  2. Continuous Improvements for Collective Impact (CICI), which will focus the minds and talents of leaders from Metro Nashville’s 15 departments on the problem of poverty; and
  3. Data Professionals Network, which will leverage Mayor Karl Dean’s open data pledge and harness the talents of digitally savvy constituents to engage students and introduce new ways to address problems in the community.

“Nashville is a city with a lot of inventive talent,” Littlefield said. “They’re attempting to engage the talent that’s just an inherent part of the population, some of whom are people that might be below the poverty level, but still with great ideas and great ways of dealing with common problems that affect cities.”

One of the ways the city is hoping to reach out to populations that have previously been under-served and utilized is by creating a vulnerability index. The index uses multiple diagnoses of an individual’s physical and mental difficulties to determine where to most effectively focus scarce resources.

“Nashville’s vulnerability index is constructing a formula for the city to determine who is most vulnerable, and just like a doctor looking at the symptoms figure out how can you treat this problem most effectively, most efficiently, utilizing the precious resources the community has available, said Littlefield.

Meanwhile in San Jose, the city has identified more than 7,600 chronically homeless individuals and another 20,000 who have experienced episodes of homelessness in the last year. The high number of homeless people is in direct contrast to the image most people have of San Jose as the capital of Silicon Valley.

The city has teamed up with nonprofit Silicon Valley Talent Partnership (SVTP) to help find solutions to the problem.

The thing I thought was the most remarkable about San Jose, is if you just look at the city on the surface, you think this city has no problems, but that they have one of the largest tent encampments of homeless people in the country. I give them high marks for facing that problem and making it public. Talk about transparency,” said Littlefield.

Since they are in the center of Silicon Valle,y it makes sense that SVTP’s mission work with the highly skilled constituents for volunteer efforts to address poverty, hunger and homelessness. “The idea is to go beyond requesting volunteers for manual work at food pantries, shelters and building homes for Habitat for Humanity — as admirable as those tasks might be — and instead encourage them to use their special training and talents to do the creative things they do every day in the digital world,” said Littlefield.

Both Nashville and San Jose’s citizen facing efforts are part of the City Accelerator program. The program is a competition among 35 cities looking at innovative practices, particularly innovations relating to poverty, homelessness, and those less glamorous types of problems that cities have to deal with.

“You can help San Jose, Nashville and the other cities participating in the City Accelerator by rating and reviewing their proposals. The process is simple and fast. The cities, and our partners at Living Cities, are studying reader feedback carefully,” said Littlefield.

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