13 women innovating city hall

In City Halls across the United States, women are at the heart of driving innovation and new ways of solving problems. Of the 73 U.S. cities with a chief innovation officer or person in a similar role, 41 percent of the positions are held by women. That compares to 22 percent of mayors and 24 percent of members of Congress who are women.

Over the past three years, we’ve highlighted the work of many of these innovative women here on the Bloomberg Cities blog and in our email newsletter, Spark. To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, we’ve pulled together these “Innovator of the Week” profiles below.

The Long Beach i-team has helped city departments tackle a lot of issues, from economic development to public safety to prototyping the design of a city park. Now, as the team reaches the end of its three-year grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, it’s relaunching as the Office of Civic Innovation on Oct. 1.

“We’re going from being start-up teenagers in city hall to becoming full-fledged consultant adults,” said director Tracy Colunga, explaining that the team will remain in the city manager’s office and continue to use data and anthropological evidence to better solve problems and understand citizen needs.

The biggest difference is that city departments will now pay for this insight. “We created a funding model where departments are our investors, and we serve as their contractor,” Colunga said. “There’s an abundance of projects to be done, because departments are constantly facing challenges.”

First up: helping the police department recruit a more diverse force and guiding the city-owned airport as it rethinks the “user experience” for travelers and employees.

Pro tip: “Unleash your staff. The more free rein you give people to be creative in their discipline, the better they become at what they’re doing.”

This story originally appeared in the Bloomberg Cities newsletter Spark on September 21, 2018. Read more about Tracy Colunga’s work in Long Beach here.

The Point West Art and Trail Project is a visionary plan aimed at reversing blight by connecting several west Lansing neighborhoods with biking-walking trails, activities, and art displays. It was conceived by resident volunteers and members of three neighborhood groups, who leveraged a $5,000 Cities of Service Love Your Block mini grant to kick-start the project and launch a successful $26,000 crowdfunding campaign.

Pro Tip: “It’s important for city leaders and staff to engage residents when working to strengthen a neighborhood. Volunteering initiatives remind citizens that they can help shape the identity of their city.”

This story originally appeared in the Bloomberg Cities newsletter Spark on March 28, 2017.

More than 70 percent of rental properties in Los Angeles are covered under the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which protects against unfair evictions and unreasonable rent hikes. Yet, because only 60 percent of the people who live in the protected properties knew about the ordinance, the law wasn’t as effective as it could be.

That was until the Los Angeles i-team collaborated with city and community partners to create an awareness campaign that included subway station posters, placards on more than 1,000 buses, hundreds of billboards, ordinance-focused Landlord and Tenant Handbooks, and easy to use websites.

The messaging, which was informed by insights the i-team gleaned from landlords and tenants, helped drive more than 10,000 downloads of the guide in just 10 weeks. Earlier this month the city published a second edition of the handbook, which, like the first, is available in both Spanish and English. The city is now preparing to launch a complementary ad campaign.

Pro tip: “As government, we don’t ‘market’ in the same ways as the private sector, but we have a real need for the public to take up services so that our investments support the community in the ways they are intended. This campaign was an example of the use of data and design for impact and awareness in our community.”

This story originally appeared in the Bloomberg Cities newsletter Spark on May 17, 2017.

As the snowiest city in the U.S., Syracuse is accustomed to tough winters. But by any standard, the season that just ended — with more than 12 feet of snow — was a doozy.

After complaints about unplowed streets and sidewalks increased earlier this year, Adria Finch organized an open house to gather citizens’ ideas for improvement. The “Snow Safety Summit” could easily have turned into a gripe session. But Finch designed it to encourage productive dialogue, setting up six stations for attendees to cycle through.

At one, residents put stickers on a map to show where they had encountered an unshoveled sidewalk or other snow-related hindrances; at others, they voted on snow strategies they’d like to see the city use and offered their own ideas. Another station was set aside for venting, offering residents a chance to write down their snow-related complaints on index cards.

“We heard from so many more people than if it were a traditional meeting, where people get five minutes to talk at the microphone,” Finch said. “It was upbeat, positive, and we received lots of good feedback — real data points we could use to see trends.”

Pro tip: “Sometimes, people want to go to public meetings to complain and be heard. Rather than just giving people the open floor to complain in front of everybody, we contained it to one area. It worked great — people loved the venting station.”

This story originally appeared in the Bloomberg Cities newsletter Spark on April 18, 2018.

In her previous job at the Center for Government Excellence, or GovEx, Lena Geraghty advised more than 30 cities as they ramped up their use of data and innovation tools. Now, she’s on the other side of this effort as Portland’s first-ever Innovation and Performance Management director — she started in March.

In her new role, Geraghty works with departments to boost efficiency and customer service; convenes an innovation working group to surface solutions from one department that can be replicated in another; and heads up “smart” city projects such as LED streetlight conversions and preparing for autonomous vehicles.

When it comes to these technology projects, she said, “my job is to make sure we have a common vision — that we’re not just doing one-off projects because we’re excited about a vendor, for example — and that we’re all unified around a common goal for the city.”

An early win has to do with relieving traffic congestion. Portland is experimenting with traffic signals that use artificial intelligence and traffic modeling to adjust to traffic conditions on the fly. In the first two months, one busy intersection has seen a 20-percent reduction in wait times.

Geraghty said her colleagues in city departments, from directors to frontline staff, have been very supportive of the innovation mission. “I’m very lucky,” she said. “I know how long the culture change work can take, but people here have been really ready to just dive in.”

Pro Tip: “Be proud of incremental change. When people think about innovation, a lot of times it means disrupting your current practices. But it also can mean taking a small step toward your desired result because that’s all that’s feasible right now. We should be celebrating both types of change.”

This story originally appeared on the Bloomberg Cities Blog on July 10, 2019.

It’s OK to pivot. That’s something Becky Jo Glover reminded her team in Grand Rapids several times this year as they developed their idea for the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge.

They started out with a plan to organize a sort of block-by-block census to gather data on racial and ethnic disparities in the city: A local building boom is pushing many black and Hispanic residents out of their homes, and they wanted to give them better data to take a stronger, more active, part in the development process.

As Glover’s team tested prototypes of the plan with residents, however, they found people wanted more than data. What they really wanted was a way to share in the gains of rising housing prices. Glover’s team reframed their thinking multiple times as this feedback crystalized. Eventually, with input from a local neighborhood association, they shifted to an entirely new idea: a shared-ownership housing model that would give even longtime renters an affordable way to take an equity stake in their community.

As Glover sees it, the new plan is proof that Grand Rapids is learning how to listen to what residents want — and to develop ideas with, rather than for, them. “The city can be open and iterative,” Glover said, “and can change and go a different direction based on what the community is saying.”

Pro tip: “When you’re solving a problem, it doesn’t matter if the journey takes you five miles out of your way — find a different way”

This story originally appeared in the Bloomberg Cities newsletter Spark on October 12, 2018.

It’s been only a few months since Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg hired Tracy McKee as the city’s first chief innovation officer. But neither the city nor the responsibilities of the job are new to McKee.

She served as Charleston’s director of geographic information systems for 18 years before becoming chief data officer in Baltimore, where she worked closely with the city’s CitiStat program, which uses data management to improve everything from water quality to murder rates.

Now she’s putting that experience to work back home in Charleston, where her mandate is to make services across a number of city departments more efficient and user-friendly. First up is overhauling Charleston’s complex development permitting process. To ground that project in data, McKee has begun tracking the number of labor hours required to review construction plans. That will be critical information as the city rolls out nearly two dozen process improvements in the coming months.

McKee and her team talk regularly with Charleston’s builders to get feedback on all of the changes, and plan to survey developers regularly to measure the impact of their work over time. “It’s really important that we consciously find a way to establish metrics and measurements,” she said. “That way, we know what impact we’re having as we continue to move the needle.”

Pro tip: “Clearly it’s important to use data to drive decision making, but you have to do it in a way that creates a culture of accountability and trust.”

This story originally appeared on the Bloomberg Cities Blog February 5, 2019.

When Alicia Moon graduated from Yale Law School six years ago, she was interested in “systemic advocacy” — finding ways to help vulnerable people advocate for themselves, so that entire public-sector systems, such as foster care, would function more equitably. Now, as the head of the innovation team in Detroit, she’s pursuing that goal from within City Hall.

The team’s first priority under her leadership was to find ways to improve access to quality early childhood education for families. To understand the system from the vantage point of people experiencing it, they conducted 40 in-depth, one-on-one interviews with parents, childcare operators, and others. One morning, two team members got up early to shadow a family with two working parents, one car, and kids in preschool programs all over the city. “We tried to put ourselves inside the shoes of parents and providers,” Moon said, “and we invited all of them to help us develop and prototype ideas.”

Insights from this research informed Detroit’s plans to replicate Providence Talks, a successful program targeted at language development in young children. And feedback from providers led directly to a new step-by-step guide to starting a childcare business in the city.

“When I was working in the legal system advocating for vulnerable clients, what I learned was a lot of the challenge was about people not having access to information,” Moon said. “It’s really similar in early childhood education. You don’t have to break the system to change it. What may feel like incremental changes you’re making can have a significant impact on individuals.”

Pro tip: “Treat your residents like the experts they are.”

This story originally appeared on the Bloomberg Cities Blog on February 12, 2020.

Dee Prasad’s specialty is tapping into cross-sector know-how to help San Francisco city departments solve problems. Her first role involved growing the “Startup in Residence” initiative. It’s an innovative procurement program that matches city agencies with startup companies to co-create solutions; the model has since expanded to more than 30 cities, counties, and states.

Prasad later took on the Civic Bridge program, which recently won an Engaged Cities Award from Cities of Service. Civic Bridge puts skilled volunteers from local companies to work on some of the city’s toughest problems. The volunteers — often professionals with expertise in tech, design, data analysis, and more — dedicate 20 percent of their time (roughly eight hours a week) for four months, working in teams alongside city workers.

For example, a team that included employees from Google partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Housing & Community Development. They turned the confusing pile of paperwork residents needed to fill out to apply for affordable housing into an easy-to-use website. Working part-time for just four months, the volunteers couldn’t do all the work themselves, Prasad said. “But what they did is help the city understand that the best way to do this is actually to build a user-friendly technology tool, and here’s how to design the RFP to find the right vendor. They helped put all that in motion.”

While not every city has Google in its back yard, Prasad said, the idea of tapping more deeply into local talent is something city leaders anywhere can do. “Every city has its own ecosystem of people who have amazing talents and want to contribute to the place where they live,” she said. “That desire is there no matter what city you’re in.”

Pro tip: “Foster collaboration by focusing on building relationships, both within the city and with external partners and then ask thoughtful questions to help you better understand pain-points and surface new ideas and opportunities.”

This story originally appeared on the Bloomberg Cities Blog on January 15, 2020.

For a small city, South Bend, Ind., is gaining a big reputation for innovation. And Denise Linn Riedl, who joined City Hall in February, is helping lead the charge.

As head of the city’s Innovation and Technology Department, she oversees the South Bend Academy. It’s an employee upskilling program, modeled on Denver’s Peak Academy, that has delivered more than 200 trainings on topics such as ways to cut waste out of internal processes and how to apply the principles of human-centered design to city services.

Now, Riedl is taking this effort a step further by working directly with departments to become more focused on the needs of people using key city services. First up is the Fire Department, which is partnering with Riedl’s team to make fire inspections more user-friendly for both small business and the inspectors.

Next up: Digging into South Bend’s idea for providing people with low incomes new options to get to work in a city where transit service can be spotty. While Riedl wasn’t on board yet when the idea developed through last year’s Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, she can see why South Bend was among the nine winners.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the willingness to innovate and try new things,” Riedl said. “If someone has an idea, everyone tries to drive to yes.”

Pro tip: “When you’re changing government systems from the inside out, you have to do it slowly on the front end to make it sustainable. You have to work at the pace of trust.

This story originally appeared on the Bloomberg Cities Blog on May 9, 2019.

Three years ago, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan sparked a unique conversation about blight by filling hundreds of vacant houses with pulsing lights — an art installation that made the buildings look as if they were breathing. Now, as a participant in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, Sheehan is pushing for solutions to the vacant-housing challenge — and she’s put Ann Marie Salmon in charge of the human-centered design process underlying the effort.

Salmon has assembled a cross-functional team of civil servants from the Mayor’s office, Fire, Police, and other departments, to research the problem and collaborate with residents to generate potential solutions.

One idea is to create an “Adopt-a-Vacant Building” program that would encourage residents to keep an eye on empty buildings in their neighborhood and alert the city in case of trouble. Another idea up for consideration is “walkabouts,” where city staff and residents walk through neighborhoods together so that the blight can be pointed out — and discussed — in person.

The team’s next step will be to prototype some of these initiatives to help generate even more citizen feedback. “From day one, we knew we wanted to work with the community on this, and to be in touch with them at every stage,” Salmon said. “We know it’s residents who will, ultimately, drive us toward the best solutions.”

Pro Tip: “It’s so important to be able to tell the story of how these innovative projects tie back to what we’re here to do, which is serve the community.”

This story originally appeared on the Bloomberg Cities Blog May 1, 2019.

Louisville is a leader when it comes to open-data policies, but Grace Simrall knows that’s not enough: “Oftentimes, to use an open-data portal, it requires you to have a certain level of technical expertise,” she said. “That’s not easy for the average citizen.”

That’s why she’s experimenting around the intersection of city data and the new wave of “smart” home technologies. For example, it’s now possible in Louisville to be alerted about bad-air days when an internet-connected light in one’s home turns red. The goal: to make it as easy for persons with chronic respiratory conditions to get that information as it is to check a clock for the time or a thermostat for the temperature.

Louisville also is pushing emergency notifications and news updates from the city directly to wearable devices like “smart” watches, social services like Facebook Messenger, and even printers. The goal of all this testing, Simrall said, is to see if it’s possible to “plug in really useful information to inform your daily life and habits in a way that’s ubiquitous and embedded in your home.”

Pro tip: “When you publish city data, ask: How is it useful to residents, and can we make it easier for them to get value out of it?”

This story originally appeared in the Bloomberg Cities newsletter Spark on April 11, 2018. Read a full Q&A with Grace Simrall here.

Sometimes innovation is about fixing problems from years ago,” said Nicollette Staton, director of Cincinnati’s Office of Performance and Analytics. “But we want to get it right the first time.”

One of the ways she’s pushing this proactive approach is through her team’s partnership with the city’s law department, which is designed to ensure new ordinances are data-informed, user-focused, and process-oriented from the start. For the city’s new short-term lease law, that included holding focus groups to incorporate citizen feedback into the registration process and making sure the city had the right technology for implementation.

Staton also serves as the data lead for the city’s just-launched What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative, which aims to help local businesses improve hiring and retention practices through a partnership with the Chamber of Commerce. “We’re looking at city departments as beta tests for the interventions we’ll be using for businesses because we have personnel data,” she said. “We think it’s a unique opportunity to help people be successful in the workplace.”

Pro Tip: “Take the time to understand why processes are the way they are, and then work with departments collaboratively to improve upon them.”

This story originally appeared on the Bloomberg Cities Blog February 5, 2019.

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