Navigator Award Finalists: The Allies

Skyline of Birmingham, AL from the 19-acre Railroad Park.

Skyline of Birmingham, AL from the 19-acre Railroad Park. Sean Pavone /


Connecting state and local government leaders

From community empowerment in a city torn apart to building technology that helps states succeed: our list of academic, non-profit and private sector leaders are making a difference.

Capping off our 2018 Navigator Award Finalists, we present “The Allies”: ten private industry partners, nonprofits and volunteer networks that are working to improve our public sector.

If you missed the rest of our roll out of finalists, the other 40 are on still our site.

More and more the public sector is not “going it alone,” but finding creative ways to work with communities, businesses and others to amplify their impact. Here are those nominees that are doing unique and outstanding work to boost their communities.

Umair Khan and Team, Accenture
Taming a Massive IT Behemoth
For massive IT and systems transformations, many public sector organizations turn to the private-sector for expertise and assistance, including some of the nation’s biggest consulting firms. Accenture has been assisting California with one of the largest IT and business transformation projects in state history, which involves the consolidation of budgeting, accounting, procurement, cash management, vendor management and asset accounting functions across 152 departments. That includes hundreds of legacy IT systems. Helping the California state government navigate this complex IT transformation and systems integration has been a team spearheaded by Umair Khan, Accenture’s technology delivery lead on the Financial Information System for California, or FI$Cal, project. Their work has included 1 to 1 onboarding support for each department, self-service portals, the piloting an AI chatbot for enhanced customer support, an insights dashboard and testing automation to increase quality and efficiency. FI$Cal now supports more than 22,000 users across 152 departments, 85,000 vendors, 15,000 bidders, and contains more than $250 billion of the state’s expenditure budget data. The size and scope of the project can’t be understated. And California couldn’t execute such big initiative without its private-sector partners like Khan and his team at Accenture.

Robin Brulé, Chief Strategist, City Alive
Spurring Inclusive Entrepreneurship and Job Growth
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, civic leaders have a set of big goals they’re trying to meet by 2025: create 10,000 new jobs, reduce unemployment to 4.5 percent, increase median weekly wages to $932, all with a focus on racial and economic equity. Helping to track progress and build a stronger community in New Mexico’s largest city has been City Alive, which describes itself as a collective impact initiative, a multi-stakeholder group that includes more than 150 leaders from local philanthropies, nonprofits, businesses and education. Through inclusive programming, access to capital, plus purposeful data collection and evaluation, City Alive and its partners are working to accelerate job creation and economic mobility through innovation and entrepreneurship. One program, Main Street Navigators, has assisted local businesses with financial, marketing, graphic design, city, web, and auxiliary business services, resulting in citywide business growth and job creation. Among the early results: City Alive and its partners worked with 341 businesses; 46 percent of those businesses are minority-owned, while 28 percent are owned by women-owned. Helping to drive City Alive’s work has been the organization’s chief strategist, Robin Brulé who, with the Data Integration and Evaluation Team, uses a results-based accountability framework to document problems, assumptions, hypotheses and strategies to determine how much is being done, how well, and whether anyone is better off. Data informs performance measure goals, with 3-6 year outcomes, and 6-10 year outcomes. The multi-stakeholder initiative is not only helping Albuquerque’s civic leaders think more strategically about inclusive economic development, but provides a model other communities can look to.

Mark Cassini and Matt Shipley, Leadership Team at Community Greening
Building a Tree Canopy, Educational Opportunities and Flourishing Spaces
Since October 2017, Community Greening has planted a total of 950 trees. It’s part of Cassini and Shipley’s larger effort to create and maintain green spaces in communities. The trees are a core part of their plan to push back on biodiversity loss and create resilient and sustainable spaces that allow residents and children to connect with nature. In Del Ray Beach, Florida, the duo has helped engage over 100 children and 200 adult volunteers to plant native species of trees on public and private property. Those plantings included 68 fruit bearing trees in a community orchard at Catherine Strong Park, transforming a desolate park littered with debris into a gathering place for the community. In rebuilding the tree canopy in the region, they are also educating the community on the importance of trees, bringing awareness of a range of  benefits: environmental resilience, improved health from cleaner air, lower energy costs and higher property values.

Alex Johnson and Rachel Stern, InState Partners
Helping GovTech Startups Move Fast and Solve Problems Faster
InState Partners is an government affairs firm that has expertise in state and local government looking to help technology companies introduce innovative solutions to government. What makes them unique is their model—they find early technology companies that are seeking to solve pressing problems facing government and rapidly bring them to scale. In return, they don’t ask for money, but “sweat equity” in return for their network of contacts across state and local government. Their partnerships include technology startups like Acivilate, a woman-owned technology company looking to provide tools to reduce recidivism among the formerly incarcerated, to Integrated Roadways, a company that offers “smart pavement” that can offer real time data on road conditions—and perhaps even alert first responders to accidents. Johnson and Stern help these companies navigate the complex world of government purchasing, and use their expertise to build awareness for products that may have never seen an RFP without them serving as a champion.

Alex Resch and “The Coach” Team, Mathematica Policy Research
Aiding Schools In Buying The Right Tech
Integrating technology into classrooms is a priority as policymakers look for new ways to support learning and prepare students for coveted high-paying STEM jobs that are growing at a rapid clip. Resch and her team at Mathematica wanted to figure out how to help educators identify the right technology tools to maximize students’ outcomes. With new technologies constantly coming on the market, it’s no easy task for schools to figure out how to spend limited budget dollars on technology. Enter “The Coach”: a web-based suite of tools that help schools use their own experience to figure out if the product or initiative is having its intended result. Ultimately, The Coach allows schools to make data-driven decisions about their education environment. Developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education, it is a free application that has been taken advantage of in all 50 states.

Executive Director Trinity Simons and Team, Mayors' Institute on City Design (MICD)
An Urban Design Boot Camp For City Leaders
Since 1986, the Mayors’ Institute on City Design has been teaching mayors to be the “chief urban designers” of their cities. Simons and her team provide technical assistance workshops where mayors learn from the experts—such as architects, urban planners, policymakers, artists, real estate developers, landscape architects, transportation engineers, and housing specialists—on how to tackle some of the most difficult design challenges that their cities face. Mayors learn the elements of design principles and receive honest feedback from experts. MICD is sure to talk about key issues that go beyond development alone such as equity, affordable housing, and inclusive growth.  A leadership initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the United States Conference of Mayors, over 1,100 mayors of cities large and small from all 50 states, DC, and Puerto Rico have participated in the program. Major infrastructure projects across the country in cities such as Louisville, Birmingham and Oklahoma City bear the “fingerprints” of MICD expertise. MICD has also provided post-disaster support sessions, such as in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy in 2013 and in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. These successes have transformed america’s cities, one thoughtful change at a time.

Katharine Czarnecki, Senior Vice President of Community Development, Michigan Economic Development Corporation
Amplifying A Democratic Approach To Building Local Businesses
In 2013, Michigan’s legislature passed an intrastate investment crowdfunding law, a method for smaller businesses and organizations that sometimes have difficulty securing financing from banks to raise funding they need to get a new enterprise or initiative off the ground. Unlike traditional crowdfunding, investment crowdfunding allows local community members to have an actual financial stake in the long-term success of, say, a new local craft brewery. With small businesses and organizations forming the backbones of many Michigan’s cities and towns, cross-sector leaders wanted to support the success of the new investment crowdfunding law through what became Public Spaces Community Places, which provides a dollar-for-dollar match up to $50,000 that a community raises in support of a PSCP project. The effort is a collaborative effort of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), the Michigan Municipal League, and Patronicity. Since its start in 2014 through this past summer, 172 projects have been supported across the state, while 163 have been completed. More than $6 million in funding has been raised from nearly 31,000 crowdfunding donors, with nearly $31.7 million in funding leveraged. Fueling this success has been Katharine Czarnecki, the MEDC’s senior vice president of community development, who pretty much had to start from scratch, as no other state had a similar program and no funds had been allocated for these types of projects. As a Navigator Award nomination for Czarnecki notes, her “ability to overcome all of these obstacles is a testament to her passion, drive, intellect and understanding of communities.” Her work supporting the PSCP program has helped strengthen numerous Michigan communities and serves as a model for other states looking to replicate its success.

Scott TenBrink, Community Liaison, Citizen Interaction Design, University of Michigan School of Information
Bringing Town-Gown Relationships to a New Level
Many cities want to build a savvy data practice, but don’t have the staff and capacity to make it a reality. Enter TenBrink and the Citizen Interaction Design program at the University of Michigan, which connects small and medium-sized communities with students that can design and develop information tools that support citizen engagement. The partnerships with jurisdictions span three years. Projects have included local history, police interaction, and recycling. One team helped Jackson, Michigan pass the first open data ordinance in the state. Another team developed a text-based tool for reporting rat sightings in Ferndale. Students are now exploring connecting voice interactive tools like Alexa to city services. The program has led to over 200 students engaging in over 60 civic projects, and they are now exploring engaging at the state level.

The National Trust For Historic Preservation and the City of Monterey, California
A Model For Maintaining Our Past
Maintaining historic public buildings and important community landmarks doesn’t come cheap. Relying on the goodwill of donors and volunteers has its limitations and in many places, that model of preservation is failing. In Monterey, California, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and its local partners, including the city government, is trying a different approach with the Cooper-Molera Adobe, a group of historic structures that dates to 1827 that has been a culturally rich local landmark in the heart of downtown. But since 2011, three acres of the Cooper-Molera Adobe site had been closed to the public due to a lack of funds. The historic site, which includes a museum, needed nearly $7 million in seismic upgrades and other improvements to fully reopen. The National Trust team, led by Katherine Frances-Malone and working with the city of Monterey, retained Foothill Partners, a local developer, to finance and construct the project. The work focused on the Cooper and Diaz Adobes on the site, and now includes a bakery, cafe and restaurant. The innovative public-private partnership used in Monterey demonstrates how civic leaders can work with allies to revitalize historic structures and find opportunities for adaptive reuse at minimal taxpayer expense all the while creating vibrant city centers for residents and visitors.

Michael P. McMillan, President and CEO, Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis
Community Empowerment Following Tragedy
In his second year leading the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, Michael P. McMillan and leaders in St. Louis’ African-American community faced the crisis in Ferguson in August 2014, where 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. As the residents of Ferguson recovered from the unrest that unfolded in their community and the pain brought by the officer-involved shooting, McMillan started the Save Our Sons program, which focused on skills and job-readiness training, technology and financial literacy for those age 17 to 24. In 2016, the successes of Save Our Sons led to the construction of the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, which is funded by St. Louis-area businesses. The Save Our Sons program has trained more than 400 people in Ferguson and nearby communities and works with more than 20 partners who have provided jobs for program graduates. The average cohort’s size is 15 and the organization’s metrics shows 78 percent full-time employment and 20 percent part-time. Program graduates have an 86 percent retention rate. As a Navigator Award nomination reads, this work “cannot be done in isolation and the president recognizes the need for more networking and importance of partnerships to better serve and transform lives.” The cross-sector approach, as developed by McMillan, the Urban League and their cross-sector partners, is a model to emulate, so it’s no wonder Save Our Sons is being expanded to the city of St. Louis and neighboring communities in St. Louis County and St. Clair County, Illinois.