Taking a ‘Pie-in-the-Sky Idea’ and Moving It to Real Municipal Practice

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The challenge model from the Bloomberg Philanthropies aims to improve citizen quality of life, as is the focus of work being done in Providence.

Former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras promoted Head Start and Early Learning programs in office, even attending a TED Talk by Patricia Kuhl on how infants adopt language analyzing adult speech for need-to-know sounds.

Recognizing low-income children’s chances of getting ahead in life are vastly diminished when they’re exposed to about 30 million fewer words by age 3, the “word gap,” Tavares wanted to empower local parents to improve literacy.

When New York City-based Bloomberg Philanthropies announced its inaugural Mayors Challenge in the U.S. in 2012, now a cornerstone program for the organization, Tavares saw his chance.

“Competitions are providing cities with a space and a mechanism that takes something that’s a pie-in-the-sky idea and moves it to real practice,” Courtney Hawkins, executive director of the resulting Providence Talks program, said in an interview. “I know that the team under the mayor researched and convened stakeholders in the communities and providers in the early childhood space before crafting a proposal.”

Inspired by United Kingdom-based Nesta’s Creative Councils, Bloomberg’s competition seeks solutions to common urban problems with the greatest potential to spread to other cities, Jim Anderson, the philanthropy’s head of government innovation programs, told Route Fifty in an interview.

Providence was one of 305 cities with 30,000-plus residents to submit applications and one of the smallest to win along with Santa Monica, California. And the Mayors Challenge also supports cities in the development of their idea.

Tavares’ team identified compact recorders designed by the Boulder, Colorado-based LENA Research Foundation to count the adult words children up to age 3 are exposed to and their verbal exchanges with adults daily—actionable data parents can use. Providence wants them in as many families’ hands as possible.

“The idea is premised on the notion that the more words you use, the more you shrink the word gap and the greater the likelihood that child comes to kindergarten ready to learn,” Anderson said. “Their idea was incredibly exciting to the committee and early childhood education at large.”

Several years into the process, following strong pilot results, a new mayor and team led by Hawkins have brought Providence Talks to life and are experimenting with new delivery models to reach more children.

The success of programs like Providence Talks has affirmed Bloomberg’s belief in the power of competition, taking the Mayors Challenge international twice since—most recently in Latin America and the Caribbean.  

Recently, representatives from 20 finalist cities met in Bogotá, Colombia, to further develop their ideas with coaching and friendly observations from their competitors.

“We like the competitions because, No. 1, they cast a wide net and ask municipalities to tell you what’s important to them and show you their best solutions,” Anderson said. “They attract new partners in cities we haven’t worked with in the past.”

Different regions have different priorities: U.S. cities emphasizing customer service, European cities climate change and Latin American cities social inclusion initiatives. But there’s also a good deal of overlap for cities everywhere to find inspiration, Anderson said.

Latin American and Caribbean finalists have ideas for improving the everyday lives of vulnerable populations like people with disabilities, mobility, climate change, natural disaster mitigation, fighting corruption, and—most prominently—citizen participation.

Unlike some competitions, Bloomberg’s encourage collaboration between cities throughout the process. Cities want to stand out, Anderson said, but they also understand everything they have to gain from sharing best practices.

Participatory budgeting originated in Latin America, and U.S. cities are only beginning to experiment with the process used in Brazil since 1989. So these competitions have international takeaways.

Aside from the Mayors Challenge, Bloomberg partnered with India in 2015 on a government-run ideas competition, India Smart Cities Mission. Then-newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted to advance his country’s smart cities agenda with a challenge-based competition distributing national grants.

As for Providence Talks, which is based out of City Hall, it reports to Mayor Jorge Elorza’s office now. The program has contracts with six nonprofit providers in different communities around the city, supplying LENA’s devices to families and training them in analyzing the data.

Almost 450 households are enrolled today, Hawkins said, and more than 700 have been served to date since an October expansion.

Hawkins is currently working to get all three models of service delivery Providence Talks is experimenting with to scale on the way to 2,500 families served: the home-visiting model tested during the pilot with 13 in-home coaching sessions, a playgroup model and a child-care model. The last model was adopted because often a child’s language environment isn’t with a parent but rather a day care educator, and all three models use LENA’s technology.

Providence Talks must also come up with a sustainability plan because long-term funding such a program has never been done before.

Along the way, Hawkins team is learning how to formally help other cities obtain the materials they need to replicate Providence’s success. More often, they see variations like a South Carolina school district scaling the group model to work with 4-year-olds, Hawkins said. This Fall, Hartford plans to launch a home-visiting model.

When she attended the LATAM Mayors Challenge meeting in Bogotá, Hawkins found many cities just wanted to know broad lessons learned regarding program implementation. While problems like child mortality aren’t pressing in U.S. cities, there are common threads.

“The thing that is consistent is the excitement generated from the opportunity to truly innovate in the public sector,” Hawkins said. “It’s something spoken of often, but you don’t see many opportunities.”

She uses the example of how, while the Providence Talks pilot was ongoing, her team was skeptical about parents actually using LENA’s devices. But user feedback showed the tangible information generated made them feel better about their parenting and what they were doing.

That kind of municipal creativity is exactly what Bloomberg is trying to foster through competition.

“The first vision came from corporations; the next generation of smart cities was articulated by government,” Anderson said. “The current conversation around smart cities is much more focused on citizens, and that’s where the Indian national government has tried to locate their conversation—advancing quality of life. That evolution is critical.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington D.C.

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