Top 3 Ways to Foster Civic Innovation

This is a guest post by Gayatri Mohan of PublicStuff.

Innovation is all around us, and it’s more than just a buzzword. Cities of all sizes are tapping into multiple channels and local resources; they’re creating effective strategies for innovation in governance.

In a recent article by Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto, he explains the importance and potential of civic innovation and urges city leaders to prioritize innovation at all levels of government. “Civic innovation” sounds broad and daunting, but there are three steps governments can take to successfully make it a central part of their strategy.

Build Out the Right Channels to Listen

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Government agencies can establish systems to better listen to their constituents. With an abundance of online civic engagement platforms, forums and mobile apps, this is now easier than ever. The City of Philadelphia uses its Philly311 mobile app, website and call center to better serve and connect with its diverse population of 1.5 million. Citizens have reported issues related to graffiti, residential maintenance, trash, potholes, vacant lots and vacant homes. Gathering this data and understanding the community’s most acute problems helps the city prepare in advance and allocate resources accordingly.

“It’s so exciting to find yet another channel to provide our residents with a more open and accessible government,” said Rosetta Carrington Lue, Customer Service Officer and Philly311 Director.

The City of Tallahassee, Fla. uses a similar mobile-first platform, DigiTally, to enable citizen participation in improving their community. By empowering citizens to be the eyes and ears of their neighborhoods, the community has seen tangible results, from everyday issues being resolved quickly to citizens requesting new bus stops and traffic signs.

But listening is only the first step. How can government leaders further engage the people they serve and truly include them in the business of governance? How does government-citizen interaction become a seamless dialogue around community concerns, ideas and tangible solutions?

Respond Directly to Public Demand

Philadelphia continues to build additional tools into its existing platform to keep it current and relevant for citizens. The Election Day tool, developed by Chief Data Officer Tim Wisnewski, was purely driven by public demand for more information on polling locations, candidates, ballot questions, voter ID rules, and polling hours. Various agencies within the City, like the Office of City Commissioner, GIS Services Group in the Office of Innovation and Technology, and the Philly311 team, came together to build and release the widget in time for elections.

Get Your Community On Board

City of Tallahassee's first interactive press conference
City officials and press gather at the city of Tallahassee’s first interactive press conference. (photo credit: City of Tallahassee)

Building channels to listen and respond to citizen demands is key, but leaders have to make sure their systems are adopted by city staff as well as citizens. In a recent survey, we found that a lack of staff and community adoption were significant roadblocks to adopting new tools in local government. Cities trying to implement new technology programs in their communities have a lot to learn from the city of Tallahassee, Fla.

The city has seen nearly 8,000 app downloads, more than 400 staff users and almost 6,000 completed service requests since DigiTally’s launch. To promote awareness and adoption upon launch, the city hosted public events like its first interactive press conference outside City Hall to conduct mock request submissions. The city also hosted lunch and learn sessions at the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce, and made an announcement through their local television talk show to educate local businesses, citizens and civic organizations.

In his article, Jonathan Reichental points out correctly that “communities are demanding more efficient governments… [and] have high expectations for the way cities function.” Nurturing a culture of innovation, and strengthening communication and citizen relations are key steps towards meeting those expectations.

Gayatri Mohan bio photo 175x175About the Author: Gayatri Mohan is Marketing Team Lead at PublicStuff, a civic software company based in New York. She can be reached at gayatri@publicstuff.com.