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Project of Week – NYC Simplicity Idea Market – Virtual Suggestion Box for Employees

I’m a big fan of the use of ideation in government to bring innovation both within agencies by employees and with citizens. Last year, the Obama administration hosted a series of dialogues on Open Government with each agency and cities from Austin to Santa Cruz have used dialogues to get ideas from citizens on how to fix the budget situation.

When I heard New York City was launching a collaboration system to solicit ideas from employees on how to save money and improve operations, I had to hear more. NYC has been doing a lot of innovative work such as the NYC Big Apps contest and this sounded like a great program at a fantastically large scale (there are 250,000 NYC employees – making it larger than every government agency besides Department of Defense).

The impetus from the project was well-put by Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith in his introductory blog on the project (underlines are my emphasis)- “Consistently during my three decades in government, front-line employees have uncovered for me the best ideas for making government work better. However, government organizations tend to have a rigid hierarchy that can often keep the best ideas hidden from senior management’s view. Overcoming this challenge isn’t easy, but through the creative use of social media, we can unlock good ideas from across all levels of our workforce.”

I reached out to the fantastic team within NYC leading the project and here’s our interview – thanks to the team for taking the time. I look forward to hearing more as the project progresses.

1 – Recently you announced a Citywide Innovation Initiative. Tell us about it. What sparked the concept?

The NYC Simplicity Idea Market is an online forum where employees can share their ideas to make City government operate more efficiently and serve customers more effectively. We know that the people out there doing the work know best how to improve on it. Technology allows us to break down barriers within agencies and departments and develop good ideas faster.

Employees can suggest ideas and also read, comment, and vote on others. Once they go through a review process, the best ideas will be implemented. Over 15,000 employees from more than 12 agencies have been invited to participate to date, and plans are already underway to include more, making this the largest initiative of its kind in any municipality in the country.

2 – What do you hope to accomplish out of this initiative? What does success look like?

Success for NYC Simplicity Idea Market will be measured by the cost savings and operational improvements that will emerge from ideas put forward in the forum. Another key benefit of the Idea Market is an opening up of lines of communication across all levels of City. By rethinking the way we approach sharing information and ideas across City agencies we can create a true culture of innovation.

3 – At GovLoop, our focus is increasing collaboration between government employees. Therefore, I was excited to see you started with focusing on improving internal collaboration within city employees. I would love your take – why did you start with internal collaboration before external citizen engagement outreach?

It is evident to me that the City employees that are interacting with customers on a daily basis have the best ideas on how to deliver City services more effectively and efficiently. It is also evident that government organizations, which are often very hierarchical and rule-driven, do not always do the best job of harnessing the valuable insights of their own employees. Idea Market breaks down some of these barriers to idea sharing so that City employees at all levels have a greater opportunity to have a hand in shaping government.

4 – A lot of senior leaders talk about wanting innovation or increasing engagement. However few end up investing the time, project resources, money, and energy to truly make it work (from idea to execution). How are you structuring the initiative to ensure real results?

For NYC Simplicity Idea Market to be successful, the City has to be committed to implementing the best ideas. We have a structured process in place for ensuring that ideas that receive the most votes from employees will be reviewed by key subject matter experts in agencies and the Mayor’s Office. Ideas that pass that review will be implemented and we’ll report back to employees so that they know the value of their input.

5 – What’s your advice to a senior leader who is thinking about launching a similar collaborative/innovation initiative in their agency? Why should you do it? How do you get buy-in with program offices? What are the best practices / potential problems to avoid?

If you’re asking employees to put forward their best ideas, you have to be willing to thoughtfully consider those ideas and to let employees know what you plan to do with their ideas.

Senior leaders should not undertake a program like Idea Market unless he or she is truly committed to opening the organization to the possibility of disruptive change.

Program offices also have to be engaged very early on in the process. They have to see the benefits of the program and know that committed executive sponsorship is in place. Other senior leaders need to actively support and engage in the program. Leaders should have an active presence in the idea forum by asking questions and occasionally responding directly to ideas. Recognizing victories at all levels helps to encourage a culture of idea-sharing.

6 – How does this fit in with your broader “Simplicity” initiative to modernize city government? Tell us about Simplicity?

Idea Market is a key component of NYC Simplicity, which is New York City’s broader agenda to transform City government by making it more innovative, efficient, and focused on the needs of customers. The cost-savings and operational improvements that will result from Idea Market will benefit City taxpayers, employees, and service recipients.

Visit the NYC Simplicity website to learn more about the City’s efforts to improve government and spur innovation.

***To see other stories of awesome government projects like NYC, check out our projects of week archive***

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