Innovating Municipal Government Culture

D.R. Widder is the Vice President of Innovation and holds the Steve Blank Innovation Chair at Philadelphia University. He’s helping city government in Philadelphia become more innovative by applying Lean startup methods and Philadelphia University’s innovation curriculum. I asked him to share an update on his work on teaching lean techniques to local governments.

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This February Philadelphia University and the City of Philadelphia founded the Academy for Municipal Innovation (AMI). Our goal is to foster innovation principles and practice in local government by changing the way government employees think about innovation and act on their ideas. We just graduated the inaugural class.  Here’s the story of our journey.

Inaugural Class Academy of Innovation Management

The Academy for Municipal Innovation has come out of collaboration between Philadelphia University and the City of Philadelphia. Soon after I came to PhilaU as the chief innovation officer, I met Adel Ebeid, who was newly appointed as Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Philadelphia. We bonded over our similar challenges, as Adel was only the second chief innovation officer in city government and I was one of the first chief innovation officers in higher education.

Building a Government Innovation Curriculum
The Academy for Municipal Innovation curriculum is built on Philadelphia University’s distinctive approach to innovation education – it’s collaborative, multidisciplinary, and engaged in the real world. The curriculum draws from Philadelphia University’s design, engineering, and business disciplines, as all are needed to make innovation relevant in the government.

Philadelphia University Undergraduate Curriculum

Philadelphia University Undergraduate Curriculum

The program is built around five core innovation practices that we teach:

  1. Integrated Design Processes – The process of opportunity finding, innovation and problem solving
  2. Business and Operations Models – How to describe, design, challenge, and evaluate innovation
  3. Systems Thinking – Methods for gathering and mapping out all stakeholders and influences surrounding an issue and solution
  4. Research Methods – How to find actionable insights and ask the right questions.
  5. Innovation Leadership – How to develop innovative teams and culture.

We took this these core innovation practices in the form that has worked at the undergraduate level, and adapted the processes and content for the working professional in the government.

The Academy for Municipal Innovation (AMI) curriculum
We deliver the class to government employees in an Executive Ed format comprised of seven 4-hour sessions.

Each class is a mix of theory and practice. A key design principle is that each session includes at least one tool that participants can use the very next day at work, so they can make it real immediately. For example, simple brainstorming techniques like “Yes, And” and “Silent Brainstorming” were put to use the same week they learned them.

We select one common theme that runs through all the classes for continuity, and they build upon it as they go. The theme for the pilot class was “How can the city better communicate and advance innovative ideas”. We built on this theme teaching the students opportunity finding, concept development, stakeholder mapping, systems dynamics, research, and business models perspective, culminating with a capstone workshop where they bring it all together.

The strategy is to take participants from across the full range of city organization chart to seed the culture change. The pilot class (we call them the Pioneers) learned innovation principles and tools, and will bring them back to their groups and spread the word. For example, a subset of the class self organized around how to better service businesses starting and operating in the city. They used the capstone to pilot a process that they plan to take back to their organizations and implement at scale.

Scaling the Academy for Municipal Innovation
We see the Academy for Municipal Innovation scaling in three dimensions:

  1. Culture – graduates become change agents in their home groups, and change their group culture locally, amplifying the impact of each graduate
  2. Depth – The certificate program can be expanded into courses for credit, and ultimate a master’s degree in innovation in government.
  3. Reach – As we move out of pilot, we will offer this program to other city governments (and other levels of government). Success in Philadelphia will make us a flagship for innovation at the city level.

Academy for Innovation Management scaling strategy

Lessons Learned

  • The bar is low but the need, and receptiveness is high for government innovation. The students in the Pioneer class have actively challenged ideas and assumptions, and are already applying what they have learned in their work. Today.
  • Creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking skills transcend context, age, and pre-existing knowledge. These skills are teachable/learnable and no matter how good you are, you can get better.
  • Leadership buy-in to innovation is that much more critical to success in government contexts.
  • Government doesn’t get to ‘opt-in’ to problem solving or choose which problems it will tackle. The government innovates with the hand it is dealt to a greater extent than the private sector.
  • The scale of a city as a building block is compelling for change and social impact. It is less complicated and with less inertia than the state and federal level, making the prospect of change more manageable.
  • “Municipal Innovation” might be an oxymoron to the cynic, but cities have scope, and levers of influence, that industry does not. Changes in policy, regulations, civic engagement, unique partnerships, social programs, and different funding mechanisms are all tools available for the municipal innovator.
  • The ‘boot camp’ experience creates a new communication network. Our pioneer class formed strong bonds learning new things together, in a new and intense environment. In addition to traditional communication, the closely bonded students can reach across the silos directly to each other, built on the relationships formed in class.

Working with the City of Philadelphia on Academy for Municipal Innovation has left me exhilarated. The city leadership, and members of this pioneer class, are committed to real innovation in government. They are taking on systems highly resistant to change, with diverse stakeholders in intricate relationships, under public scrutiny and political complexities. The magnitude of the challenge and their commitment is inspiring.

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3 Responses

  1. I’d encourage you to look at Wilson, NC for an example of a smaller city gov’t that’s doing amazing things. They have one of the first municipal fiber deployments in the country, and are thinking very progressively about how the city serves the population in meaningful ways.

    Check out http://www.greenlightnc.com/ for more information.

    Wilson used to be in heart of tobacco country. It’s about 40 miles from Raleigh/Durham and is slowly beginning to attract new companies because of the policies and actions taken.

  2. Yes!!!!
    About time.

  3. Wonderful initiative, best wishes.
    The primary innovation that all government is required to embrace today is business and commerce facilitation. “How can we help business and their employees advance their interests within a government framework as opposed to our current mandate of obstruction” How can government get back to their primary task of providing service?
    After all, business and their employees are the genesis of all government and building road blocks through policy innovation without consequences is destructive.

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