From Innovation by Crisis to Innovation by Culture
May 22, 2023
From Innovation by Crisis to Innovation by Culture
May 22, 2023

The pandemic forced local governments to activate their innovation skill sets. Now city leaders must grow that spirit of inventiveness beyond the tactical, building it into the day-to-day work of government.

By Stephen Goldsmith and Amanda Daflos
Originally published on

Today the federal government is terminating the COVID-19 national public health emergency. While vaccination efforts and the virus itself remain, this moment nonetheless gives local governments and their leaders a chance to look back at lessons learned and chart a new course moving forward, particularly as many pandemic-era programs and funding are ending along with the emergency declaration.

We view this opportunity from the perspective of long-term public servants and professionals in the area of local government innovation who witnessed state and local governments rapidly take extraordinary actions as the pandemic tore into our communities three years ago. Stephen has spent decades in public service, first as a county prosecutor, then as mayor of Indianapolis and finally as deputy mayor for New York City, galvanizing the role of data in equitable and efficient policymaking. Amanda’s 25 years of public service — first while working with federal, state and local government agencies to support major government transformation projects, then as the director of the Los Angeles Innovation Team and as the city’s chief innovation officer — has shown her that data analysis, human-centered design and building trustworthy systems are the proven ways city governments can rise to any challenge and maximize every opportunity.

Now, as director of the Data-Smart City Solutions program and professor of public policy at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University and as executive director of the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins University, respectively, we are able to bring these insights to a broader, deeper platform that spans a global network of city leaders.

COVID-19 forced local governments to activate their innovation skill sets: using data and data analysis to inform policy, responding quickly to emerging needs, designing and testing solutions in response to residents’ real-time needs and feedback, and nurturing trust with residents through regular two-way communication. During the pandemic, city and state officials took creative measures to get food to low-income homebound residents, create their own supplies of hand sanitizer and distribute personal protective equipment to hospitals, improvise land-use policies for outdoor dining, and more.

These accomplishments provide us guideposts about how to build a culture of innovation that applies to the day-to-day actions of government. While we saw tremendous inventiveness during the past three years, innovation is more than a crisis response or emergency solution. For example, innovating the daily work of filling potholes could mean using more resilient materials or identifying unsafe roads with sensor-equipped garbage trucks — or preventing the pothole in the first place by using visualization tools to ensure that all neighborhoods receive regular maintenance regardless of racial demographics or economic status.

Savvy city leaders are still keeping these skills at the forefront of their service while expanding innovation’s reach, from an individual response to a problem by a dedicated team of specialists to a proactive enterprise of entire governments. Together we propose new steps forward for government innovation: Simply put, innovation must grow beyond the tactical, “find a problem and solve it” approach; this is too top-down and will ultimately stifle creativity. The following principles and practices, proven during the COVID-19 response, will build a culture of innovation into city hall if widely implemented.

First, change requires two types of champions: an elected leader who boldly defends it and a senior executive responsible for authorizing implementation actions often considered unusual by the bureaucracy. Amanda’s work as the director of the Innovation Team, then as the chief innovation officer, gave her an opportunity to merge advocacy and the authority of then-Mayor Eric Garcetti, showing her the power of data analysis and human-centered design in transforming processes. Her work in reforming how the Los Angeles Police Department hires new officers combined data insights concerning where the problems occurred with a stint at the police academy with the new recruits. This example proves another lesson, that innovation must be based on data, experience and business process re-engineering.

Creativity requires bottom-up flexibility and new thinking as well. The extraordinary success of Denver’s Peak Academy, which we have championed several times, is an excellent model of how good innovative ideas come from governments’ front lines. Rather than focus on a small group of technical experts, Peak Academy offers in-house process improvement and basic data education for all levels of city employees, with the goal to “inspire employees to create a higher standard of government.” Knowing that expertise comes from people who do the work every day, rather than a consultant who parachutes in, the Peak Academy model empowers government employees to create improvements in their area of specialty. City staff who may have never considered themselves innovators should realize that these skills, if not already active, are simply untapped.

Also, we saw in the many recent innovations that new approaches included listening early and constantly to those who are struggling, especially those from long-ignored communities of color or those who do not exercise their public voice. Orlando, Fla., with support from the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation’s training, looked at the difficult issue of youth homelessness through different eyes, and it changed city leaders’ thinking about how to go about creating solutions. Informed by diversity of perspectives, human-centered design was the innovation skill that galvanized Orlando’s team. And in Los Angeles, Amanda’s team used data analysis to dispel myths about accessory dwelling units, drive statewide policy change and empower the city to increase its supply of affordable housing. Data built a fact-based narrative that allowed the city to take action on an issue that had long been contended and address an important need.

Finally, the pandemic showed us that cities can procure quickly. New York City, for example, rapidly contracted a service that automated food delivery to high-need families and individuals. The city then utilized out-of-work taxi drivers to connect the food distribution centers with those needing supplies. Procurement offices, along with seasoned legal teams able to discern the ethical and legal limits of new approaches while separating what is a legal requirement from what is simply tradition, can and must change the speed of acquisition.

Newly elected mayors and other public servants, even and especially those who didn’t participate in innovating their cities through the pandemic, should do everything possible to learn the lessons of their predecessors — relying on data and supporting data capacity, preserving finances, automating the workforce, creating networks of partnerships with businesses and nonprofits — to carry an innovation mindset into their work moving forward.

Given the mandate to be ambitious and the freedom to imagine, create, pilot, test, fail and iterate, cities can meet any challenge or opportunity with the right solution. When leaders rethink the issues and their response to them using data analysis, human-centered design and trustworthiness, no answer looks the same. It changes the way cities view, analyze, manage and respond to issues. The challenges of the pandemic enabled city leaders to prove that they could respond creatively and quickly to the needs of their residents. Now it’s time to build the principles of that approach into day-to-day actions.

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