Story Bellows has some hard-won advice for keeping civic innovation alive in Philly - Technical.ly Philly

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Mar. 25, 2016 12:36 pm

Story Bellows has some hard-won advice for keeping civic innovation alive in Philly

Bellows spent three years trying to change the way City Hall thinks about risk and experimentation. Here's what she learned.

Story Bellows.

(Photo by David Kidd)

What does it take to inject innovation into the bones of City Hall?

Innovation here meaning a higher tolerance for risk-taking; allowing room for experimentation; bringing new people to the table; turning to untraditional resources. Essentially, breaking from the mold of how governments usually work.

We posed the question to Story Bellows, the former director of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics who has won acclaim for her work, and she had a lot of answers, but most of all, she said mayoral support was key. (Bellows left Philadelphia to join the Brooklyn Public Library last fall.)

Bellows pointed to San Francisco and Boston, home to two of the most successful civic innovation offices in the country, and she said that the reason they’re so successful is because those mayors really care about them.

“It’s part of the mayor’s policy agenda,” she said.

Bellows was hired to lead Philly’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, an idea inspired by the Boston office of the same name, in 2012. Along with her co-director Jeff Friedman, she had free reign to experiment with new kinds of solutions to city problems. (Friedman left for Microsoft in 2014.)

“The mayor said if we don’t fail, we’re not trying hard enough,” Bellow told us back in 2012. “And we’ve certainly taken that to heart.”

Nearly four years later, with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM from here out) going through a transition under the new administration, we thought it was a good time to ask Bellows how the office fared.

Story Bellows at a FastFWD event in October 2013. (Photo by Kait Privitera for the City of Philadelphia)

Story Bellows at a FastFWD event in October 2013. (Photo by Kait Privitera for the City of Philadelphia)

But first, a word about the Kenney administration.

It won’t retain MONUM in its old form, but officials say they want to make it clear that innovation is still a priority. Instead of being in the Mayor’s Office, innovation efforts will be a collaborative effort between Chief Administrative Officer Rebecca Rhynhart and the Office of Innovation and Technology, specifically director of innovation management Andrew Buss.

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Rhynhart’s role is a new one: she’s in charge of making government more effective and efficient and oversees the “back office” departments, the ones that keep the consumer-facing departments running. That includes agencies like OIT, Procurement and Fleet Management.

She said that by taking innovation out of the Mayor’s Office, it’ll make it easier to ensure that those efforts reach across City Hall. City spokesman Mike Dunn cited Bellows’ 2014 comment that “keeping [MONUM] in the mayor’s office does not make sense for long term sustainability.”

Dunn also mentioned that the grant that funded the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics had expired and that the Nutter administration did not reapply. (Though when we talked to Bellows, she said that after the Bloomberg grant expired mid-2015, she was paid through the Mayor’s Office.)

We asked Bellows what she learned from running MONUM, how it fell short and what she’d do differently. Here’s what she told us.

1. Hire a staffer who’s focused on this and only this.

Otherwise, that person will get pulled onto other projects. “Something else is always going to take priority,” Bellows said, if there isn’t a full-time staffer focused on civic innovation.

2. Get aligned with the mayor’s priorities.

One of MONUM’s big mistakes, Bellows said, was that it chose to focus on projects that didn’t fall under the mayor’s core goals. MONUM did a lot of work around rethinking procurement but didn’t get that much executive support or attention because it wasn’t one of Nutter’s priorities.

“Had we focused on something that was more core to what the legacy was that Mayor Nutter wanted to leave, we would have had more success,” she said.

On the other hand, the Nutter administration was very interested in engaging startups, and that’s partly why accelerator FastFWD got so much attention from Mayor Nutter.

3. Find a way to work with departments across the city…

“We didn’t have access to open new doors to new departments very effectively,” Bellows said, adding that it would have been nice to have more access to resources and staff from different departments.

4. …but know that being in the Mayor’s Office offers a certain amount of cachet.

That cachet helps get outside partners on board, like the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, one of the partners on FastFWD. When people see that something is housed in the Mayor’s Office, it sends the message that it’s a priority for the administration.

“Mayors have the bully pulpit,” she said. “Nobody else has that position in city government.”

5. Above all, the mayor needs to show that he cares about civic innovation.

“I think Philadelphia has done a really amazing job over the last half decade to really get on the map in terms of innovation, especially civic innovation,” Bellows said. “We’re seen as a real leader nationally and internationally. Part of that is because the mayor said, ‘This is something I care about.'”

So, what can Kenney do to show he cares about civic innovation?

Time and money. Like Bellows said, hire someone.

“If you’re not spending money on something, it’s clearly not a really high priority,” she said.

And not just that, but take the time to engage with the people who are working on these types of projects and understand what they’re working on.

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Juliana Reyes

Juliana Reyes has been covering the Philadelphia tech scene since 2012. She's co-president of the Asian American Journalists Association Philadelphia chapter and a two-time Philadelphia News Award winner for "Community Reporting of the Year." The Bryn Mawr College grad lives in West Philly, likes her food spicy and wears jumpsuits often.

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