The following interview was done by Diseño Público with James Anderson. James oversees Bloomberg Philanthropies’ government innovation programs, focused on building problem-solving capacity within local governments and spreading innovations that work. Current programs include Cities of Service, CityLab, the India Smart Cities Challenge, Innovation Teams, the Mayors Challenges, and What Works Cities. He led the Foundation’s efforts to establish the nation’s first social impact bond in partnership with Goldman Sachs and the City of New York.
Before joining Bloomberg Philanthropies, James served as communications director to New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. During that time, he was the chief architect of NYC Service, the City’s high impact citizen service strategy, and Cities of Service, a bipartisan coalition that now includes over 160 mayors representing more than 55 million Americans. Previously, he served as senior advisor to the commissioner of the City’s homeless services agency, and as communications director for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a national advocacy organization.
James grew up in Montana. He and his husband live in Brooklyn, New York. Follow James on twitter.
“We believe the involvement of public leaders is essential to overcome these challenges – and to move innovation efforts from the periphery into the mainstream of what government does.”
Could you tell us about your work and why it is important?
We’re committed to supporting cities as they work on developing innovative solutions to complex and pressing problems. Along with our partners, we help local leaders develop practical tools, test urban innovations, and refine their approaches. Through grants, technical assistance, and by bringing our cities together to learn from one another, we promote bold public leadership, raise their innovation ambitions, and increase the use of data in decision making.
Our work is important because cities often serve as battlegrounds for broader social problems. Cities are where people live their day-to-day lives and conduct their business, and where government action can have an immediate, measurable impact on people’s quality of life. We want to ensure cities have the tools and insights to get the job done.
What is the meaning of innovation and what do you think its role is in Local Governments?
Innovation is about creativity, agility, and a willingness to experiment. Innovation can simply be finding a new way to use what is already available, or making efficient tweaks to the system already in place. In some cases, innovation can arise from culture changes in city hall, through empowering city employees at all levels to offer their opinions and allowing leaders to draw from a wider range of perspectives.
What do you think are the challenges Local Governments have to innovate and what are your suggestions to overcome them?
On the one hand, there’s something inherently agile about local governments: they deliver everyday services, they hear constantly from citizens, and they are accountable to get the job done. On the other hand, public servants contend with specific barriers to innovation, such as aversion to risk, fear of failure, and a lack of resources (time or money). We believe the involvement of public leaders is essential to overcome these challenges – and to move innovation efforts from the periphery into the mainstream of what government does.
What is the role and responsibilities of citizens when innovating in Local Governments?
Public innovation is most powerful when it involves the public. Through all of our programs – from the i-teams to the Mayors Challenge competitions – we support cities to engage citizens in defining problems, generating solutions, and prototyping ideas as they go. This not only helps policymakers come up with better solutions, it increases confidence and trust in our public institutions – something of critical importance in this day and age.
Could you tell us about a successful project that you have developed and what made it succeed?
Strong leadership will be vital if city governments are to address complicated and pressing issues. Every day, mayors around the world act as problem solvers on a range of issues affecting their cities, and it is critical that we engage with them as key drivers of innovative policy. Through our annual Mayors Challenge, we are able to support these efforts by creating space for city leaders to innovate, experiment, and engage with their citizens as they work to improve city life and combat complex challenges. Open to a different global region each year, mayors can apply to receive funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies to implement an innovative solution to a problem facing their city.
This year, we offered the challenge to cities in Latin America and the Caribbean. Our 20 finalists were announced earlier this year and represent an exciting mix of creative projects, from a plan to improve children’s commutes to school to a new app that would combat government corruption. A key factor that contributes to the success of the Mayors Challenge is Ideas Camp; teams from each of the finalist cities participate in a two-day workshop where they learn from each other and from global experts in order to improve their proposals. The Mayors Challenge works because it harnesses the spirit of competition while emphasizing collaboration, idea sharing, and continuous learning.