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Bored By the Mayoral Debate? Check Out These Ideas.

Friday, June 14, 2013

WNYC

It's summer and the mayoral candidates have gotten into a bit of a rut. The Center for an Urban Future and NYU's Wagner School of Public Service want to mix up the debate, and they looked outside New York to do it.

In a new report, they highlight 15 innovations that are changing the way government is working.

One is Spacehive, a London-based tech company that helps local governments raise money for civic projects. It's like Kickstarter, but with extra layers of verification, since taxpayer dollars are involved. Though it's not a substitute for capital bonds, it has democratized private-public partnerships.

"Bit by bit, the councils across the UK have seen this as a fantastic way of leveraging up limited cash supplies," said Andrew Teacher, Spacehive's policy director. "The first project we actually successfully funded was a community center in a very, very downtrodden part of Wales, in an ex-mining town with about 50 percent unemployment, and we raised about £70,000, and through that, that unlocked around £800,000 of grant funding, basically the last little bit of cash to unlock it all."

Many of the ideas in the report address affordability and the future of the middle class, issues that have dominated the mayoral debate.

For example, a program in San Francisco automatically sets up small college accounts for every kindergartner in public school. There are also zoning changes in Seattle and Santa Cruz geared to help homeowners build garden apartments and basement units, so there's more housing units available and an opportunity for some rental income.  

And in Michigan, credit unions have created lottery-style contests to encourage low-income people to save. Instead of entering the lottery by buying an otherwise worthless ticket, residents are eligible to win whenever they make a deposit into a savings account. Joanna Smith-Ramani, who helped design the program for the Massachusetts nonprofit Doorways to Dreams, said that there's a been steady increase in the average balances in these accounts since it launched four years ago.

"Something has happened, where they've gotten into a habit, they're having fun with it. So when the money's there for them, they need it, but they come back to continue to engage and their behavior's essentially changed around savings. It's really remarkable," she said.

Some of the report's ideas are not without their pitfalls. A new government ID in Oakland that also functions as a pre-paid debit card was designed to give residents without bank accounts an alternative to carrying around wads of cash. But the debit card was widely panned in its initial roll-out because of its high fees.

The other puzzle for policymakers has been how to make sure new ideas and initiatives survive when mayoral administrations change. The city government in Denver tried to address this with intensive management training for agency workers. The city's Chief Perfomance Officer David Edinger said the idea was to extend the focus beyond political appointees or a stand-alone Office of Innovation. 

"One of the key mantras is we're going to teach ourselves this, and it's going to be government by government, so we're not going to hire a lot of consultants," he said.

The idea is to make smart management part of the culture in city agencies — and  in the end, to make it a little less important who wins local elections.

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