Five years ago, Philadelphia created an Innovation team within the Office of Innovation & Technology with a recognition that government needed to change its practices: the way we deliver services, the way we communicate, and perhaps most importantly the way we solve challenges. While the concept and practice of innovation in the private sector is common— companies need to stay competitive, respond to market changes, and attract and retain customers—public sector efforts to innovate often remain less formally organized and less frequent. Without competition as a driving factor for innovation, why should we in government concern ourselves with the status quo? And if we do care about innovation, what does it look like and how do we do it?
Government must be innovative because our primary mission is to deliver the best services to our citizens in the most efficient and effective way, and that can only happen when we continuously challenge ourselves to seek new, better solutions to old problems. Additionally, we recognize that innovation in government typically means process or program improvement, not product development, so we need to create systems that support the growth and development of our employees and their ideas. Too often, government is guilty of jumping to a ‘solution conclusion’ before wholly understanding the problem at hand, and process innovation ensures that the right solution is created in an intentional and thoughtful manner. While a new technology-based platform might very well alleviate a specific departmental challenge, that platform is only as effective as process it enables—and that’s what our version of municipal innovation addresses.
In Philadelphia, our core work supports this goal with a unique portfolio of programs supporting the concepts of People, Place, and Process. These three concepts are supported by three initiatives—an Innovation Academy, Lab, and Fund, that together address and coordinate the Why and How of government innovation. The Academy trains municipal employees in the principles of innovation so they can bring new problem-solving skills and relationships to their departments and portfolios; the Lab provides a physical space for co-working, collaboration and creative brainstorming; and the Fund offers both seed funding to employee-driven pilot projects, and a process by which government solicits, evaluates, and implements innovative proposals and ideas. Our work centers around capacity building and culture change, recognizing that government is only as effective as its employees.
"Too often, government is guilty of jumping to a ‘solution conclusion’ before wholly understanding the problem at hand, and process innovation ensures that the right solution is created in an intentional and thoughtful manner"
While our goal has always been to make municipal innovation accessible and equitable to our employees, the Innovation Academy and Innovation Fund are application-based initiatives—with limited resources, it isn’t feasible to admit every City employee to the Academy or fund every great pilot program. But the demand exists; in 2016, we started fielding informal requests to provide “innovation help” to departments who wanted to think differently about their challenges but hadn’t yet had the opportunity to put a colleague through the Academy or develop a project proposal for the Fund. To accommodate this need, we established a program called Innovation Consulting.
As an innovation team, we must consistently evaluate our own work and ensure we are changing in the same ways that we encourage our peers, and Innovation Consulting is our response to furthering the growth of innovation in Philadelphia’s government. People, Place, Process laid the foundation for this new program; we built a strong network of support across government and realized that our capability to support innovation enabled the next phase of our work. Consulting seeks to explain how some of our strategies and techniques can be applied to a variety of professional environments and challenges, and why it’s important that innovation—with myriad definitions and interpretations—be strategically and intentionally incorporated into employees’ portfolios. The core service of Innovation Consulting involves planning and facilitating targeted and individualized workshops for teams and organizations, both internal and external to government, who face operational challenges. These challenges range from stakeholder communication, to process improvement, to program development and evaluation, to strategic planning. Workshops are developed around human centered design thinking tools and techniques and leverage the experience and knowledge of participants to generate new ideas. In our efforts to continually build our internal capacity for innovation, workshops are designed in collaboration with members of our Innovation Network, engaged employees who have graduated from the Innovation Academy and remain invested in seeding innovation across government.
Besides the immediate benefit of exposing more people to the principles of innovation, Consulting has a much deeper impact on government efficiency and effectiveness. By keeping consulting in-house, clients avoid the costly and time-consuming procurement and contracting process necessary to hire an external consultant, and can also leverage existing physical space and resources to host their sessions. Additionally, the service offers the flexibility to engage any number of employees for any length of time without minimum or maximum requirements often imposed by outside consulting.
Most importantly, however, Innovation Consulting provides a platform for City employees to continuously break down silos and share information across departments in authentic and impactful ways. Internal consultants already understand the nuances of working within the context of municipal government, so sessions are focused on addressing the clients’ true needs, not explaining the unique ecosystem that is the public sector. Because our consultants represent a diverse pool of departments, they can offer how their team might have solved a similar challenge, or provide insight about an initiative that would be missing in a traditional consulting relationship. We’ve seen employees from the Animal Care and Control Team advise the Free Library on a new data management system, and an Infectious Disease specialist offer feedback to the Department of Revenue–and that’s our culture shift.
Innovation Consulting is a new kind of government support: Innovation as a service offering. Almost one-third of our clients are non-government entities, and all are interested in embracing new ways of thinking. As Philadelphia becomes a growing hub of start-ups and new businesses, Consulting allows us to connect with our public clients in a way that truly impacts their ability to grow in the city. By offering Consulting as a service, we’ve shifted the conversation toward innovation being an essential part of government—and a resource that we’re happy to provide.