How Innovation and Engagement Are Really Two Sides of the Co-Governance Coin

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston, Massachusetts Marcio Jose Bastos Silva /


Connecting state and local government leaders

As civic tools abound, cities are struggling with what is needed and how to keep innovation coming.

BOSTON — The last several years have seen a variety of efforts to reinvent local government. The rise of chief innovation officers, offices of New Urban Mechanics and innovation teams in cities reflect attempts to shift the culture within local government away from business-as-usual to one that is nimble and willing to innovate and take appropriate risks to tackle big problems. And cities have seen some extraordinary results from these efforts.

At the same time, governments are also seeking new ways to engage their residents to better address complex challenges from infrastructure to income inequality. Civic apps and innovative approaches to engagement, like the use of games to engage people in city planning, have increased cities’ interest in this issue. The goal is to bring people more deeply into the work of government to make sure that they are genuinely included and that government policy and practice reflect their needs.

The big misconception about innovation and engagement is that they are separate things. They’re not. Rather, they are two dimensions of what we call “co-governance”: the ability to tap into the ingenuity and lived expertise of city residents and employees alike to co-create policies and services that get better results in people’s lives.

Co-governance requires cities to have two basic abilities: (1) the ability to bring people effectively into the process of policy development and innovation; and (2) the ability to translate those interactions into meaningful policy changes and innovations.

Through the City Accelerator, a program of Living Cities supported by the Citi Foundation, we are each supporting cities working to hone one or both of these abilities. In Nigel’s cohort, focused on innovation, cities are working to build a set of processes, relationships and techniques to make innovation course-of-business. For example, Louisville has been honing a business process to better surface, vet and work on innovative ideas using their performance improvement and innovation teams. Philadelphia is using the techniques of behavioral economics to improve the way that residents access their benefits.

Eric’s cohort, which launches in May, will focus on creating new practices for public engagement. For example, cohort finalist New Orleans is focused on better engaging low-income residents to increase utilization of free and low-cost healthcare services. These cities will explore how best to design effective engagement processes, rethink traditional structures for engagement like town hall meetings and neighborhood councils and dig deep into how best to engage traditionally marginalized communities. You can see all the finalists here—we’ll announce the cohort next month.

In practice, there is a strong synergy between the approaches of the two cohorts. Engaging with residents around a single issue like accessing benefits will inevitably raise other issues that cities will need to explore with their residents. And at some point, government innovations affect city residents’ daily lives, and local governments need to be able to understand how and why. In short, these cities’ work demonstrates that innovation and engagement are two sides of the co-governance coin.

This is not easy work. The civic innovation space has seen a rush to market of new and exciting tools, but by and large practitioners are still scratching their heads trying to figure out what is really needed, what tools to use and when new tools simply get in the way of structural changes. And cities are still figuring out the ins and outs of building the processes, practices and relationships necessary to make innovation standard.

But despite those challenges, our local partners truly believe that “city governments have to change the way they do business even as they change the business they do.” They are committed to developing and using better tools, to find ways to build deeper partnerships with city residents and to ensuring that systems and organizational cultures within government can harness those partnerships for greater effect. We are excited and humbled by the opportunity to support them and to capture what they do for use by cities around the country.

You can see more about the work of the City Accelerator here and more about our approach for Nigel’s innovation cohort here.

The City Accelerator, a project of Living Cities and the Citi Foundation, seeks to speed the spread of innovations that make government more effective and improve the lives of low-income people. More on the City Accelerator can be found here.

Nigel Jacob is co-chair of the Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston and urban technologist-in-Residence at Living Cities, where he leads the City Accelerator’s cohort on embedding innovation in local government. Eric Gordon is director of the Engagement Lab and associate professor at Emerson College and leads the City Accelerator’s soon-to-launch cohort on community engagement. The opinions presented here are Nigel’s and Eric’s.

NEXT STORY: How a Collaborative Urban Environment in Raleigh Is Building Up Steam