Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob: Size Does Not Matter When it Comes to City Government Innovation

This is part of a series of interviews with leading practitioners and thought leaders on new approaches and solutions that have been proven to work. This interview is with Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob, Co-Chairs of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston.  

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If you are advising a city that wants to focus more on innovation to improve service delivery, how should they get started?

We focus on two types of innovations.  The first are projects.  From teaching kids to filling potholes, we identify specific areas and apply new approaches to explore how we can do that work better. The second is the structure of the office.  We are constantly refining our office’s approach to support a government that is always learning and exploring new approaches. We believe these efforts go hand in hand.

How does that work in practice? How do you change government and its approach to specific projects?

The key insight here is that when we look at new projects we assess them not as ‘projects’ but as ‘products.’ This sounds so simple, but it can be a radical change.  A product focus requires being citizen-centric from the very beginning.  

The conventional government “innovation” is designed around refining existing operations.  So the big shift is to anchor our approach – and thus our products – in understanding the needs of our residents and, though a series of prototypes, improving the services we provide to them.

Give an example of what this looks like in action.

We did this with a re-design of the platform the Boston Public Schools use to help parents learn about different schools in the system. What we did with this new platform from the get-go was pay close attention to user feedback to guide everything from the data we presented to the colors we chose to the design we used. This resulted in a very different platform.

To build this new product we not only had a different approach but also worked with a different set of partners. Traditional government tech partners are strong on the back-end of service delivery, but shockingly weak on the citizen-facing side— the side dealing with constituents. To design a product that was citizen-centric, we collaborated with two important partners: a user-oriented designer from Code for America and a manager from the Boston Public Schools who interacted extensively with parents. This insured that parents’ likes and dislikes shaped the functionality and not the pre-existing back-end technology.

This sounds like a great approach, but would you say it’s only possible in a big city like Boston?

This absolutely applies to any municipality; the principle is universal.

The challenge is the executing the model. Government work is hard; you have to teach kids, clean streets, spur growth, etc., and do all this with fewer funds all the time. When tackling all these challenges, it is easier to do the thing you did yesterday. If it worked yesterday, do it again tomorrow.

To overcome this cycle you need to carve out dedicated people and dedicated time to try something new – to innovate. Boston may be able to do this at a larger scale than some other municipalities, but all municipalities can do it.

A separate, dedicated group allows an organization to be ‘ambidextrous’ – to both execute and to innovate.  To truly explore, this group must have the obligation to learn and a license to fail.  A dedicated group can create a ‘safe space’ for risk.  The overwhelming and understandable desire to “do the right thing” can lead to conservative choices, unless the organization has a way to manage risk.

I understand the principles but I still think there are cities out there that feel Boston could do this because it is a relatively wealthy city with resources to experiment.

We hear that all the time, and it’s simply not true.

We have always approached our work with a mindset of thinking creatively about the resources at hand; we do not pour lots of money into the work. What this forces us to do—and this is also a new thing and a different approach for government—is to reach out more to partners outside of government. So we have become the office that readily taps into higher education and civic activists and technologist.  We harness those outside resources—our community really—to help us improve government performance. In some cases, this also ensures that products are not just built for the community but by the community. 

This interview was conducted by Neil Kleiman, National Resource Network Director of Policy, Research and Evaluation.