“Sixteen years ago I was labeled as the Urban Mechanic and described as a sort of one-man ‘Mr. Fix-It’ when it came to the basics that make our city work. The nickname was overstated then, but it’s outdated now – we are all urban mechanics.”
Tom Menino, Mayor of Boston
A few weeks ago I raised the idea of business model innovation with regard to running parks. I see much applicability in the research on business innovation for city park governance. There is a kind of Hi-Lo way of looking at governance and running parks as suggested by Mayor Menino that links the idea of innovation – big picture and cutting edge – with mechanics, the down and dirty of everyday excellence in operations.
I’ve also been reading Governance as Leadership by Richard Chait, William Ryan and Barbara Taylor. (The Pew Charitable Trust has a nice summary of the book here.) The book is mostly about reframing the work of nonprofit boards, but I see lessons for reframing the work of P3s, too.
I think that engaging in park partnerships drives the need to focus on governance and thus the ways that the work at hand can be done better; it’s really about finding ways that the partnership, with new resources, can innovate and do the job of running parks differently.
According to our authors, there are two methods of leading which boards follow: task and structure based, or governance based. Most practitioners in the field know that focusing only on organizational structure and management processes won’t lead you to innovate, but it’s always a safe place to begin.
An approach focused on governance means thinking about it in a way that generates real leadership and innovation. They suggest finding a common purpose before worrying about tasks and structure by looking back on the organization’s history and success, finding clues about its culture, and discovering a common purpose which can become a better starting point for goal-setting. In the case of parks, it’s about looking at the park’s history and culture of operation with an eye toward sharing governance and what that means and looks like.
Peter Harnik, Director of the Center for City Park Excellence is forever asking, “What’s the problem?” in an effort to sort through the myriad challenges that park managers have. Deciding on the nature of a problem before trying to solve it makes sense.
Given a common understanding of the problem, all the park partners can start from the same place. For example, in the case of parks, rather than cut back on services in the face of budget deficits, local governments can engage partners to transform the way parks are managed – what are the ideas, how can we innovate? A successful partnership works because the reason for it is compelling, not coercive, to both partners. Because, our authors suggest, “…posing catalytic questions and promoting robust dialogue right where the stakes and anxieties are high…” is the place where innovation begins.
This idea hit home for me in reading about some of this year’s winners to the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge. The Mayors Challenge was created, “to celebrate the creative problem solving and incredible innovation that is happening in city halls from coast to coast.” The goal is to find innovation around the problems and challenges that face local governments in delivering services. One means for this is linking issues, linking stakeholders and breaking down silos.
While the overwhelming majority of philanthropic support is still issue-specific – e.g. education, health care, the environment, or the arts – the Bloomberg Philanthropies sees the first step in innovation as creating a city-wide strategy where all those issues come together.
Innovating in Philadelphia
One of this year’s winners is the Philadelphia Social Enterprise Partnership [PSEP] which provides opportunities for entrepreneurs who want to tackle traditional public sector problems such as storm water management, gun violence and education. In March, the group’s proposal was one of five (out of 300) awarded $1 million.
PSEP partners include Good Company Ventures (GCV), the city’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (ONUM) – similar to Mayor Menino’s in Boston, the Wharton Social Impact Initiative and the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology. According to Bloomberg staff, PSEP’s inclusion of non-government leadership was unique among Bloomberg finalists.
PSEP has three core elements: (1) reframe challenges as opportunities for innovators; (2) bring the best ideas to Philadelphia to be developed and challenged with city government at the table; and (3) create a system that allows city government to serve as the testing ground for these new solutions. Each year they work on three major urban challenges.
Here’s the premise of the project in Mayor Nutter’s words:
Historically the tendency of government was to think it had all the answers. We defined problems and we prescribed solutions. You sent us taxes; we delivered services. But current economic and political realities require government to be more focused and strategic in our investments and actions – and though there has been a certain loss of trust in government to just get stuff done – it is at the local level that we are best placed to drive innovation and earn back the trust of our citizens, restoring a sense of hope and optimism about our future.
The role of government is evolving from problem-solver to partnership-builder and, as usual, that change is being driven by city governments. Cities are incubators of innovation…pursuing progressive policies and initiatives tackling some of America’s toughest challenges. Most exciting are not just the initiatives themselves – whether aimed at violence, clean energy, or education – but the ways in which cities are developing them, leveraging the enormous creativity of citizens, entrepreneurs, and other partners to transform the ways we solve problems.
Philadelphia has essentially created a space outside the government structure that allows innovative ideas to flourish and take root through collaboration and partnership. Here’s an example from the Mayor:
In order to encourage the development of innovative solutions around neighborhood improvement, we’ll bring together the Police Department, Licenses and Inspections, 311, and our community engagement program, PhillyRising, to identify assets including open data, program knowledge, environmental resources, expenditures, and insights to define critical areas of need and opportunity. We’ll pool this information into a national call for ideas, and the 10 most promising will come to Philadelphia to turn these ideas into solutions with the relevant city departments, Good Company Group, a social enterprise accelerator, and the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, among others. The most viable solutions will be piloted inside city government – perhaps with Police or 311, or maybe both – creating a lab for urban innovations.
I like the idea of collaboration with a business innovator and academic and the practitioners whose job it will be to implement the new idea. This approach has broad appeal for park advocates looking for innovative business models for running parks – everything from governance to linking to other city functions like transportation and housing on the park’s edge are critical to the park’s success.
One of the interesting aspects of this work is the discussion behind the timing of setting goals. Innovation gurus say hold off on committing to goals too fast. Most of us like to believe that ‘thinking’ has to precede ‘doing’ but goals frequently emerge from action and can inform what the goals should be – I call my version of this the “ready, shoot, aim” approach. Once a common understanding of the challenge between park partners is found, the next step is to experiment relentlessly to try out new ideas. Testing ideas before committing to them can help refine them.
This makes a great deal of sense when you look back at all the park conservancies who didn’t start with contracts with their city partners, or MOUs, or even letters of agreement in some cases. They just agreed on what needed to be done and began to tackle the job, learning in the process. They assumed that their actions would inform a bigger, longer term set of goals as well as a way of working with each that amplified their strengths. One of the paths to innovation is through partners using their partnership to observe and to ask provocative questions and to find successful ways to address long term issues, not just the tasks at hand.
Kathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions
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