Civic News

Lessons learned from the City of Philadelphia’s 8th Innovation Academy cohort

Nineteen managers from different City departments met this year to learn the foundation of innovation — Identifying stakeholders, opening up lines of communication and remembering to ask yourself the "why" behind your work. Check out the Twitter thread with takeaways from Philly Director of Innovation Eliza Pollack.

Eliza Pollack leading a session at Code for Philly's 2017 Civic Engagement Launchpad.

(Photo by Chris Kendig)

Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT) is trying hard to dispel the long-thought concept that working in local government means you’re slow to change or innovate.

The Office’s goal was always to show how other departments can implement technology or new approaches to get things done. But when the pandemic hit in early 2020, the Office was tasked with getting folks to adapt to new technology, and fast. Since then, OIT has helped City employees work remotely, and this summer, Chief Information Officer Mark Wheeler told they’ve gotten more comfortable than ever before.

“It shattered our own disbelief in our own ability to move quickly and adopt and change quickly,” he said.

Similar lessons were learned during this year’s cohort of the City’s Innovation Academy — a program that trains City employees from different departments in creative thinking and problem-solving.

On Twitter, Director of Innovation Eliza Pollack shared sentiments from the program’s eighth cohort, which brought together 19 middle and senior managers from the departments of Commerce, Parks and Recreation, Revenue, Fire, Airport, the Board of Ethics and OIT. Members from the Office of Education, Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, Office of Property Assessment, Office of Public Health, Office of Economic Opportunity, Office of Sustainability and Department of Human Services also joined.

You can check out the entire thread here, but biggest lessons learned include identifying the right stakeholders for your project and tailoring your message to each distinct group. City governments, especially, often have different departments doing similar work, and can aim to be less siloed and share resources when possible. This sharing will lead to best practices.

Pollack tweeted that her biggest takeaway was: “At their core, city employees are in their roles because they want to make lives better for all Philadelphians. It’s truly the reason that people come work for government and the reason they stay, despite all the challenges.”

While the goal for this program has always been to help employees build innovation toolboxes, the programing has adapted over the years. This most recent cohort had a heavy emphasis on the process behind problem-solving, Pollack said.

The cohort met in-person, after some debate about COVID-19 safety precautions, but all participants were vaccinated and masked during meetings. They assigned employees into small groups to develop their ideas and innovation frameworks, then presented what they learned to the rest of the cohort. Pollack’s Twitter thread outlines these lessons.

“It was truly a reminder that there is just no substitution for in person collaboration — building relationships and working together through the type of curriculum we have is just so much more impactful when it’s IRL,” Pollack said.

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