Boston’s innovation lab teaches government to take risks. Here’s how

Four lessons from one of America's oldest labs

For many, making the trek to city hall to register to vote or apply for a parking permit is a necessary evil — but not in Boston. A roaming City Hall-to-Go van, modelled after a food truck, visits every neighbourhood, offering citizens one-on-one guidance and easier access to public services.

City Hall-to-Go is the brainchild of the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM), and one of its many initiatives designed to improve the relationship between citizens and government.

MONUM calls itself a design studio within government; a place where solutions are prototyped free from bureaucratic constraints. Ideas that originated there range from Citizens Connect, an app for reporting problems to city officials, to Boston Saves, a program designed to help kids in public school put money away for college. MONUM can take on the risk associated with big ideas like these — and once tried and tested, pass them onto city agencies.

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But the change MONUM has pushed through city hall is more cultural than technological: MONUM wants to put a human face on government by making it easier for people to reach it. Nigel Jacob, the co-founder and -chair of MONUM, along with his team, presented on this week’s Apolitical Innovation Show & Tell, a monthly gathering of innovation labs and teams from over 35 countries. These are the four lessons we learned from the MONUM’s presentation about how to change culture and drive innovation in government.

Don’t expect blind trust

It’s no easy feat to gain the respect and trust of government employees, many of whom are taught to avoid, not seek out, risk. “But if departments don’t trust you, they’re not going to listen to anything you say,” said Jacob. “You have to create the cultural context for this type of work — which means building risk tolerance in government.”

Maybe a department is worried about having its name attached to something that might fail, or is uncomfortable using its own budget. MONUM allays concerns by taking cover for city agencies.

“We try to absorb as much of that bad news as possible, so they can push all the negative publicity our way”

“If it doesn’t work, we try to absorb as much of that bad news as possible, so they can push all the negative publicity our way. If it does work, we try to give as much good credit to these departments as possible,” said Jacob. He calls this acting as a “risk aggregator” for local government.

Another tool MONUM uses is identifying early adopters. “There are a small number of innovators spread between bureaucracies that help us subvert it,” said Jacob. “After all — bureaucracy is just people.”

Choose your projects carefully 

MONUM only takes on projects that have the potential to prototype, scale and have impact — to improve citizens’ lives and have a positive effect on the community. They avoid ideas that will be too expensive or time-consuming to carry out, and don’t take on projects that will take more than a few months to prototype.

Once a project is chosen, they research, experiment, evaluate and — depending on its success — hand it to a city department, or call it a failure.

They keep their expectations realistic: not everything is expected to succeed. “We’re proud to be experimentalists. A good experiment is one that gets done,” said Jacob.

Hire a diverse, multidisciplinary team 

MONUM’s team isn’t just made up of people with a traditional policymaking background: it includes a computer scientist, a game designer and a firefighter, all of whom bring something different to the team.

“We try to hire hustlers. We want people who are comfortable navigating big bureaucracies, but still creative,” said Jacob. This means choosing people who are comfortable working within the rules civil servants must follow, with enough of an entrepreneurial streak to push up against the limits.

Use technology to build trust and compassion

MONUM focuses on building things people want and need, not just what its employees already know how to build. This means going into communities and speaking with citizens to understand what’s on their minds. The team uses tech tools to build relationships within the community and between community and government.

For example, its Boston Saves program, which gives children enrolled in public kindergartens $50 savings accounts to encourage them to put money away for university, makes use of family “champions”. To get parents and kids excited about the program — now in its third year and 11th school district — MONUM brought in members of the community to co-pilot and -own the program, which gets people talking about Boston Saves, and builds trust with families.

“A lot of the language used in smart cities is about efficiency: being better, faster, cheaper,” said Jacob. “To us, it’s not about apps, data, dashboards, sensors, KPI and the Internet of Things. It’s about how to make life better for even the most modest people in the city.”

(Picture credit: Mayor Martin J. Walsh, City of Boston)

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