Who Said Government Couldn’t Do Consulting?


City employees facilitated an Innovation Retreat for UPenn’s Office of Alumni Relations

This is a guest post from Eliza Pollack, Program Manager for Innovation Management in the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology.

When I got a phone call from the University of Pennsylvania’s Office of Alumni Relations last March asking if they could host their annual staff retreat in the City’s Innovation Lab, I sighed and prepared myself to say the usual “No, I’m sorry, we don’t let outside entities use the space without a City connection.” After a few moments of speaking with Molly, the office’s assistant director, however, it was clear that the program they had in mind was very different from our usual event requests. The theme of Molly’s retreat was “Innovation” and she was hoping that we could help her and her colleagues develop a unique, interactive and meaningful session that would encourage their employees to think about their most pressing challenges in new ways. It was a no-brainer for me – I said yes.

Over the next few months, Molly and her team met with us – the Innovation Management group –  multiple times to discuss the details of the workshop, and by the time June rolled around, we had put together a robust plan that involved graduates from our Innovation Academy teaching the Penn Alumni staff how to use stakeholder maps, creative matrixes and out-of the-box brainstorming techniques to help them answer pressing questions about the effectiveness of their communications with alumni across the country.

The workshop was a tremendous success; the Penn team walked away armed with new tactics they could use to tackle real challenges in their portfolios, the Innovation Academy graduates got to put their Philadelphia University education to the test, and we learned that not-so-usual suspects, both internal City departments and external community stakeholders, were truly interested in learning more about how to apply innovative principles to their real work challenges. And so, “innovation consulting” was born.

Over the past few months, the Innovation Management team has developed a series of programs that aim to help explain what exactly we do within the context of municipal government, how some of our strategies and techniques can be applied to a variety of professional environments and challenges, and why it’s important that innovation – whatever that means – be strategically and intentionally incorporated into peoples’ everyday (or at least everymonth) work. We launched the Innovator-in-Residence initiative, an exchange program that allows City workers to “swap” places with employees from a variety of universities, non-profits and private entities in an effort to better understand how innovation manifests itself across different sectors; we hosted an engaging roundtable discussion with young professionals interested in learning more about the changing face of municipal government as part of Young Involved Philadelphia’s State of Young Philly event; and we facilitated an idea pitch session to help City employees solicit, develop and expand forward-thinking, unique ideas to submit to the Knight Cities Challenge.

This consulting is a natural next step in our quest to help Philadelphia develop and solidify a culture of innovation. We are challenging ourselves and our colleagues to truly think about their work in new ways, and we are utilizing our network of innovators to help facilitate meaningful and necessary conversations in their departments and offices. These Innovation Fund Working Group members, Innovation Academy graduates, and Innovation Lab frequent users are acting as our ambassadors, and we are excited to see where else their investment in innovation leads us.

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