Hi everyone! I’m excited to kick off the launch of our blog. This is something we’ve been talking about doing for over a year, and we’re glad to finally get it out there. We are looking forward to using this forum to keep the community up to date about all the great work our team does. For my first post, I want to give an overview of the Office and our short history.
The Office of Innovation was launched in 2015 thanks to a generous grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. We were part of a 14 city cohort of Innovation Teams that were each tasked with solving their city’s biggest challenges. The ‘Bloomberg Approach’ asked the Mayor to define a broad priority area, and for our team to conduct research to break down the problem into contributing factors and determine which we were best positioned to impact. With this framing we then set out to develop initiatives or new programs with measurable goals. Our priority area was poverty, and we chose barriers to employment as a contributing factor to dig into. This led to our first programs and initiative which we’ll review in detail later. This methodology and logic based approach still guides our work. We have also benefited greatly from being part of the cohort and being able to share and learn from other cities. We continue to keep in touch with our sister teams in cities like Syracuse, Mobile AL, and Peoria, IL, and just caught up with them at a process improvement conference in Syracuse!
I’m incredibly proud of our current staff of eight, each of whom bring a diverse background and skill set. We are also very grateful to Mayor Warren who has made an incredible commitment to our team by fighting for continued funding for our work.
Amy, Luticha, and Brenda have been with us from the start and have each played an important role in our success. Kate and Eitan have joined us in the last year and are already making a big impact. We are very proud of Kate who was just recently promoted to Chief Performance Officer and is leading several key initiatives that will shape the future of City Hall through her expertise in government efficiency and data. Finally Angela and Elizabeth are our two AmeriCorps staff who operate our Kiva Rochester program. We’re going to sad to lose each of them at the end of the summer as their year of service comes to an end. Look for posts from each of the team coming soon!
What is ‘Innovation’ Anyway?
People often ask me how I define innovation. From our perspective, innovation is a problem solving approach. The most important rule is to not lead with a solution, as this can cloud your vision. Instead, we begin by doing everything we can to get a deep understanding of the problem. We usually start with data, analyzing census and city source data to look for trends and key insights. We also use GIS to map data and look for geographic variations and hotspots. We contextualize the data by talking to people, both those impacted by the problem and those working on the frontlines, to confront the problem. These people usually help us see the story behind the data that might not be immediately clear. We also look at the body of research on the topic, and history of efforts in other cities and in Rochester. Only once we have this foundation of knowledge do we begin to develop solutions.
When it comes time to developing solutions, it is even more important to do it in partnership with the people impacted by the problem or working in its environment. They are the ones who live and breathe the problem every day, and often have very simple ideas from years of experience that can have a huge impact. Whenever possible, we seek to empower them to develop their own solutions and help guide them through the process with a facilitated framework. This is how truly impactful, authentic innovation and problem solving takes place. This is how people are given ownership over the innovations that affect them and the successes that follow.
As I mentioned, our first few years of work have been focused on strategies to tackle poverty, and more specifically, barriers to employment and economic mobility. Systemic poverty is an issue encountered by every city, and the challenge is perhaps no greater anywhere than it is in Rochester, where child poverty and overall poverty rates are among the severest in the nation. Fortunately, our community is rallying around the issue and has formed an unprecedented coalition of all levels of local government, service providers, academia, and the business community, organized under the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI). We helped support the early design and implementation of some of RMAPI’s earliest initiatives, and we continue to provide ongoing data analysis and program evaluation support. Our RMAPI partners have been critical to achieving our shared goals.
One important early contribution was a data driven analysis that helped select the initial target area in which RMAPI would pilot its initial programs. Our analysis selected the Marketview Heights, Beechwood, and EMMA neighborhoods because they had many challenges but also many existing resources and services in close proximity. We next helped conduct a large scale door-to-door survey within these neighborhoods, which collected a statistically significant sample size of responses on questions regarding access to services and barriers to employment. Combined with prior analysis, this data helped confirm transportation and physical proximity to jobs, childcare, criminal records, skills and education, and access to resources as our biggest barriers to employment and economic mobility in Rochester.
In the area of transportation we have done our most work, partnering with RGRTA to develop a commuter vanpool program and supporting the Department of Environmental Services launch of Rochester’s very popular bikeshare system. Both were built with equity and access in mind. In the next year we will launch a carshare system with these same goals. I’ll ask Brenda to provide a post to give you all the details.
We have sought to create jobs in our low income neighborhoods through the Kiva Rochester and Own Rochester (formerly Market Driven Community Cooperatives) initiatives, which each support small and startup businesses with an emphasis on building wealth through business ownership. Kiva does so by supporting entrepreneurs who may lack access to capital to start or grow their business. OWN Rochester does so by launching and incubating worker owned coop companies in partnership with some of our areas largest medical and academic institutions. More on Kiva from Amy and her team soon, and I’ll follow up on OWN Rochester.
We also dug into barriers to economic mobility. We researched and authored a report in 2017, Wage Disparities in Monroe County, which helped highlight our racial disparities in pay in particular industries, and our top employment areas where people aren’t making a living wage. We are working to ensure our jobs are providing people with the stability to provide for their family and advance themselves towards a better future. More from Luticha on the report and our next steps on wage advocacy soon.
Our team is also part of the project team that helped design and launch the Bridges to Success and Family Independence Initiatives, commonly referred to as RMAPI’s ‘Adult Mentoring’ programs. We have worked closely with staff from Catholic Family Center, Action for a Better Community, and Community Place of Greater Rochester, in addition to academic partners from Notre Dame and RIT. Our team specifically helped design the program around a rigorous evaluation that will document impact and positon the program for more sustainable funding streams. We also helped deploy a large door-to-door recruitment effort in partnership with our Flower City AmeriCorps program. We’re excited that the program is now fully enrolled, and I’ll write back with more fun details later.
In 2017 Mayor Warren asked our team to begin to shift the focus of our work towards internal consulting projects with our City Hall departments. Under Kate’s leadership, we launched the Mayor’s dashboard which displays key operational indicators from across our departments in real time. Next we are working to build a performance management framework around the data to help our senior managers increase their impact and coordination. Kate has also helped train our team to provide process improvement consulting to support our internal departments, and we are in the middle of our first few engagements. I’ll let Kate tell you more about this work in her first post!
Again, we plan to provide a detailed blog post on each of our programs very soon, and we hope you will check back and keep up with us! For now, I’ll leave you with a (mostly) comprehensive listing of our major initiatives and programs, past and present.
Our team has led or played a key role in the development of the following programs/initiatives:
Currently our team is developing the following upcoming programs/initiatives: