September 17, 2013
By Robert Polner
New Yorkers will elect a new mayor this fall, but with the city still facing a number of huge challenges, the city’s next leader will have to be every bit as experimental and innovative as his or her predecessor.
With the coming election in mind, urban specialists at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service went looking for new policy innovations that might be successful in New York City. The first step in the process—led by Neil Kleiman, director of the school’s Innovation Policy Labs, and Jonathan Bowles, who heads the nonprofit Center for an Urban Future—were interviews with more than 200 policymakers in cities around the world. An initial list of 120 policy ideas resulted.
Kleiman and Bowles then solicited feedback from policymakers with expertise on how government actually runs in New York, from those inside City Hall to those running nonprofits. The field was narrowed to 20 highly promising ideas, and the collaborators then brought together some of New York’s most thoughtful policy experts for two roundtable discussions, leading to a final list of 15 game-changing reforms.
Detailed in a newly published booklet, “Innovation and the City,” these ideas do not fit into a conventional policy area, such as education, housing, or job creation. Kindergarten-to-College Savings, for example, provides an automatic college savings account of $50 for all San Francisco public school kindergarteners, an incentive that addresses the need for more college readiness with asset-building strategies. It taps the private sector to manage the savings accounts and to garner additional dollars for those parents who add their own money.
Another program is Spacehive. Founded in the U.K., it uses a new crowdfunding website to drum up community ideas as well as funds for local capital projects. Other ideas are smart management approaches such as the Denver Peak Academy, in which hundreds of entry- and mid-level bureaucrats enroll in a five-day “change management” course and work up realistic reforms to take back to their home agency.
New York is hardly the only metropolis that can benefit from cutting and pasting from the 15 policy innovations in the report. A number of urban areas such as Los Angeles and Minneapolis will soon have new administrations, while local leaders everywhere face significant challenges. As Ben Hecht, president and CEO of Living Cities—a collaboration of some of the world’s leading foundations and financial institutions—said at a June forum convened to discuss the report: “There is a treasure trove of what people learn through the innovation process. People doing work on the ground actually put together tidbits and nuggets. That’s where innovation comes from.”