Re-Innovating Government: Still the City of Firsts

Keys To Community, a nine-foot bronze sculptur...

Keys To Community, a nine-foot bronze sculpture of Benjamin Franklin by James Peniston. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philadelphia has always been a “City of Firsts.”  From the first public library to the first university. From the first hospital to the first fire department, Philadelphia has been a hub of innovation since its birth.  Few would argue with the premise that Benjamin Franklin was one of most innovative thinkers of his time and that his great City was a center of innovation. The trouble is that this designation is often viewed as a thing of the past—that Philadelphia was a great innovative city, that Philadelphia created but no longer creates.

I am surrounded by thriving innovators in our city who disagree. They cite Philadelphia’s vibrant tech community, creative educational institutions, leading-edge hospitals, burgeoning start-ups and great social innovators as proof of a resurgent and innovative Philadelphia. I agree with this view even if it is slightly aspirational.

We may not be where we need to be but we are on our way. Like in the past, government must play a crucial role as facilitator, convener, and yes even catalyst for innovation.  In Philadelphia, we are quite simply—Re-Innovating Government.

Just this past month, we have seen examples of re-innovation as the City of Philadelphia has received national and international recognition for some of its latest “firsts.”

We can start with the Philly311 Mobile App and its ability to continuously translate to 16 different languages. With this functionality, app users can communicate with city government and other citizens in their respective native languages.  Philadelphia is the first city in the nation to offer this service.  The Philly311 app, its translation functionality and its use as a community engagement platform led Fast Company to write an article last week featuring our efforts and our team.

Then there was the cover story of Government Computer News featuring the Office of Innovation and Technology’s G.I.S. Services Group.  As the last installment of a four-part series, GCN highlighted the City of Philadelphia’s use of LIDAR (light detection and ranging technology) to create 3D models for structures in center city, both indoor and outdoor. (Philadelphia is the first city to do this too).  By pairing LIDAR data with already gathered data sets, such as aerial oblique imagery, the City is working to create a catalog of solutions in the areas of public safety, emergency management and beyond.

Last week also saw the Australian Broadcast Channel feature PhillyRising, a first of its kind neighborhood initiative that engages citizens in a bottom up approach to deter crime and bring incremental, sustainable changes to tough urban neighborhoods.  As part of a series, ABC aimed to explore viable solutions to violence in Philadelphia. For this segment, ABC came to McPherson Square in Kensington to interview two active PhillyRising community members, PhillyRising Director, John Farrell, and myself about the coordination of City services, our Citizen’s Engagement Academy and how improvements to the community have enhanced the area’s quality of life.

And as this post was being drafted, I received word that Philly311 was named a finalist in the ICMI (International Customer Management Institute) Global Call Center Awards. To receive this award, Philly311 submitted employee satisfaction surveys, an operational video, essays, and voluminous data. With previous winners such as Capital One, American Express and Wells Fargo Bank, this award has been dominated by the private sector since its creation.  It shouldn’t be a surprise, however, that Philly311 is the first government call center to be named a finalist.  When you combine these first-of-their-kind accomplishments with the fact that Philadelphia has its first ever Chief Innovation Officer, Adel Ebeid; its first Chief Customer Service Officer, Rosetta Carrington Lue; its first Chief Data Officer, Mark Headd (who was featured in Government Technology Magazine); its first Director of Civic Technology, Tim Wisniewski; with recent efforts across the City around innovation such as Philly Keyspots, New Urban Mechanics and the Bloomberg Challenge, you can rest assured that Ben Franklin would be proud that innovation is alive and well in Philadelphia.

Innovation in government requires not just a relentless commitment to creativity and continuous improvement but a fierce resolve to see it through. Today’s leaders must demonstrate the courage for risk taking, transparency, and authenticity to have honest conversations. Today’s leadership requires the humble confidence to listen and collaborate, and the adaptive style to ensure innovation.

These types of innovations would cause Ben to raise a glass to the fact that his “City of Firsts” lives on…

Rich headshot 1

Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.



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