(Photo by Chris Kendig)
In 2014, I joined the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation & Technology as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed program manager for innovation management. I knew nothing about innovation, technology, or government — but I must have known something about program management because I was hired for the job. In a post I wrote for Generocity after two years in that role, I said that “working for the city is unlike anything I imagined, and it has turned out to be the best decision I could have made, both personally and professionally.”
Six years later — is that still the case?
The short answer? Yes.
The long answer? It’s a bit more complicated.
All the things that I loved about my job in 2016 are things that I still love today. As the director of innovation (#promotion — it does happen in government!), I have tremendous autonomy over a portfolio that I deeply believe has a positive impact on Philadelphia and its residents. I get to work with colleagues across City government who are continuously challenging the status quo and truly want to deliver services and programs more efficiently, effectively and creatively. I’ve seen leaders from all sectors come together to address our city’s most pressing challenges and be excited to use Post-Its, markers and flip chart paper to brainstorm, create and implement solutions.
I’ve also learned that this work is difficult and it truly takes a village to build and sustain the culture of innovation that we’ve been growing since 2014. There are so many things that I wish more people knew about sitting in this space in the public sector and while I wholeheartedly, 100%, no-questions-asked believe that everyone should consider working for government at some point, part of the reason I feel that way is because we need as many people as possible to understand these five things:
1. The right people need to be at the decision-making table.
A lot of the success of our work is due to the fact that we’ve built a portfolio that makes innovation accessible to anyone. Our core programs — the Innovation Fund, Academy, Lab and Consulting — are available for all City employees, regardless of level, and we’ve seen truly fantastic ideas and change come from engaging more junior colleagues in program and process development.
Over the past six years, innovation has been incorporated into more and more high-level decisions, both formally and informally, but there are still many departments and leaders who haven’t yet fully embraced our mantra of “doing government differently.” Until Innovation Academy graduates and others who “get this” work (looking at you, potential new hires) are invited into the board room (or the right Zoom call), our ability to reimagine so many elements of Philadelphia will hit a ceiling of impact.
2. Technology can’t solve everything.
The irony of working in the Office of Innovation & Technology is that our work often doesn’t involve technology at all. Instead, we emphasize the people and processes behind the tech to make sure we’re addressing the right problem in the right way.
Public sector innovation looks different than in other places: While we might ultimately realize that we need an app or a new cloud platform to improve an element of service delivery, more often than not, we need to eliminate redundancies in a process, or improve team communication, or overhaul an outdated strategic plan. Only once we’ve done that due diligence and incorporated the appropriate feedback and engagement from the appropriate people (see point #1) can, and should, we think about introducing a new technology into our ecosystem.
3. Government is confusing.
Remember everything you learned in your Civic 101 class in high school? Yeah, me neither — but I can tell you we didn’t talk about the complicated procurement rules, the multilayered budget process, the unions, the relationship to City Council, the slower pace of business, etc.
On their own, none of these factors are inherently bad, and they each serve a unique purpose in government, but they do create very real standards (and yes, sometimes barriers) for how we work, how we innovate, and how we create lasting change. And, to be sure, many of these things are elements that we’re trying to address through our innovation work, but stay tuned for point #4 because —
4. Capacity is key.
With only myself and an innovation coordinator working on this portfolio full time, we’re a small team with big goals. We’re so much farther along than where we were in 2014, but there’s more work to be done, and we’re continuously thinking about ways that we can leverage departments’ and employees’ capacity to be innovative in their own portfolios without our direct involvement. Programs like the Innovation Academy and Innovation Consulting focus on training individuals and arming them with specific tools and methods they can use to think creatively about challenges in any context, and we rely on these folks to be innovation ambassadors in as many situations as possible. We need all the allies in as many pockets of City government as we can get to ensure that programs, processes and standards are continuously evaluated and improved.
5. Most employees really, really, really want to make Philadelphia better.
If you’re interested in a job with the City, I’ll assume that you would be one of these people too, but just to be clear — there are so many good folks working in government who are trying exceptionally hard to make Philadelphia the best version of itself. We’ve graduated six cohorts of the Innovation Academy (and had a seventh one interrupted by COVID), funded 22 pilots through the Innovation Fund, and facilitated over 100 Innovation Consulting workshops, which means hundreds, if not thousands, of employees have chosen to engage with the innovation portfolio in some way. This doesn’t even begin to include the people who are doing this work on their own without an “official” touch point with our team.
The changemakers are out there and they’re impacting us every day, even if that impact isn’t immediately felt.
So, to recap: I love my job and I encourage everyone to consider a stint working for local government. COVID has made the past seven months challenging, but I think it’s simultaneously highlighted both how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go, regarding innovating in government — and a key part of that trajectory is getting the right people in the right positions at the right time.
I am just as grateful for, and excited about, my role as I was when I joined the City in 2014, and can only hope that more of you get to experience what it’s like inside City Hall — or, get to hop on a video call with people who work in City Hall.
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