PM Article: Making Space for Smart Innovation

Defining Your Path Forward

May 24, 2018 | ARTICLE

By Wayne Reed and Marina Giloi

If necessity is the mother of invention, then innovation must be its sibling. Before starting on the road to become a smart community, local governments must foster an atmosphere that supports innovation and invention. Employees need to feel comfortable sharing their ideas to improve the way business is done, to experiment and take risks, and to be supported in their creative endeavors.

Today’s world is experiencing an exponential growth in innovation1 and a dramatic reduction in time between idea creation, adoption, and deployment. This pace of innovation benefits consumers, as well as businesses, on a daily basis at home, at work, and at play.

In the private sector, companies seek innovative solutions for services and products to remain competitive, control costs, increase market share, and/or improve profitability. On the public side, communities need to drive innovation to sustain strong local economies and sustain a high quality of life.

Hallmarks of an Innovation Plan

Local governments can best harness their capacity to innovate by creating a strategy and a plan to innovate. It is not necessarily tied to specific funding sources, leaders, or partnerships. Innovation for each community will be different and customized to areas of focus. It is akin to thinking about and deciding where to take a trip.

In the case of smart communities, an innovation plan provides a strategic road map for developing smart initiatives with defined goals and measures of success, which are tailored to the organization’s current and long-term maturity, community needs, resources, and technologies.

An innovation plan’s components include its vision statement, purpose, areas of innovation, strategy, performance management, maturity assessment, results, timeline, budget coordination, and transparency.

Vision statement. A successful innovation plan, much like other types of strategic plans, should have a well-articulated vision statement that describes its high-level, long-term objectives. Organizational leadership, stakeholders, and community partners should be involved in drafting and refining the vision statement, as it provides the guiding purpose for the plan’s realization.

Purpose. An innovation plan will explain why a community is investing in innovation and how it intends to go about it. In short, this document recognizes that a community can only improve on its current state by evaluating different approaches, often thinking outside the box, to alter its future course. It lays out a comprehensive approach to address short-term and long-term problems, issues, and opportunities.

Areas of innovation. In general terms, innovation in the public sector spans four broad categories: services, processes, regulations, and policies. The aim of innovation in these four areas is to identify, analyze, and improve upon existing problems, issues, and opportunities to better serve a community.

A local government should start an innovation plan by building consensus on what it thinks innovation means and the benefits innovation can bring to the community. Here are the four categories:

1. Services. Service innovation involves evaluating existing services and developing new services to better align delivery with the needs and desires of the community. Service innovation is intended to address a current or projected community need and should include development of multiple options on how to achieve the desired outcome that consider levels of service, necessary resources, required professional expertise, potential partnerships, and estimated costs.

2. Processes. Process innovation has to do with identifying, analyzing, and improving a portion of or an entire business process. A community may want to use one or more of a variety of methodologies, including Six Sigma, Lean Management, Lean Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, Process Excellence, that are available for process improvement. Outcomes of process innovation can include improved quality, increased productivity, and/or higher customer satisfaction.

3. Regulations. Regulatory innovation is concerned with evaluating the intent, impacts, and outcomes of ordinances. The primary aim of regulatory innovation is for a community to develop a better understanding of an issue by analyzing the underlying causes, defining the desired outcomes, identifying necessary resources, contemplating unintended consequences, and calculating costs associated with the governmental action.

4. Policies. Policy innovation involves an examination of alternatives to guide present and/or future decisions and actions in response to a set of facts, events, and assumptions. Its goal is to make well-informed decisions in a timely manner that are in the best interests of a community. They may be in response to the needs of constituents, lingering community issues, actions by other organizations or governmental entities that will impact the community, or a natural or manmade disaster.

As to selecting what areas to focus its resources, a community could look to a recent resident survey, an organizational risk assessment, and/or conduct “open houses” to solicit public input. In addition, staff could work directly with elected officials to build consensus on specific areas to start with and then determine where resources can be dedicated and are perceived to produce the greatest benefit to the organization or the community.


A community needs to determine its approach to managing innovation. It is common for both employees and service areas to be involved in innovative efforts in both small and big ways. This approach does produce benefits to the community, but in a decentralized manner. In the absence of an innovation strategy, organizations lack processes for innovation, leadership support or awareness, comprehensive budget preparation or implications, organizational recognition, and performance management.

A community that wants to promote innovation and maximize its investment in it should consider dedicating staff resources to guide initiatives. This could be achieved through the creation of an office of innovation or possibly dedicated staff within a department.

Whatever course is taken, a community will be successful in promoting innovation by providing assistance in project management, employee development, performance management, and communication.

Project management is key to effective and efficient innovation. To increase success and to assist owners of ideas (innovation), an organization should provide training to individuals and teams assigned to a project or process improvement. This can be in the form of a formal scoping exercise that will:

• Refine the business case for the innovation.

• Describe what the scope will and will not deliver.

• Identify stakeholders.

• Acknowledge risks and how they may be mitigated.

• Understand the impact of assumptions and constraints.

• Outline a schedule.

• Develop a budget.

There is tremendous value in this type of preparation, because it requires the individuals to think long term and to sufficiently describe what they are aiming to achieve. In some instances, the scoping exercise may reveal that it is not the right time to pursue a particular innovation.

Performance management. Government needs to hold individuals and teams accountable for their innovation projects. Once an innovation idea is deployed or implemented, it is important to monitor performance and provide a feedback loop. An innovation may still be successful, but the feedback may indicate the need to tweak the solution to optimize the outcome.

Likewise, performance may exceed expectations and an analysis can provide an explanation and may instruct future innovations. Performance management should be included in a government’s transparency efforts.

Maturity assessment. Especially in developing an innovation plan related to smart communities and technology, it is important to assess the organization’s current maturity. Understanding skill sets, organizational initiatives, and resources currently in place informs realistic short-term and long-term goals and identifies areas with the largest maturity gaps or areas of high risk.

Further, a maturity assessment will serve to identify and refine specific areas of focus (e.g., public safety, transportation, energy) and outline on a detailed level the current level of maturity of technologies being used in these areas.

These organizations have published smart city readiness assessment tools and approaches:

• The Scottish Government and the Scottish Cities Alliance:

• Deloitte:

• City of Bellevue, Washington:

Results. The completion of a maturity assessment asks the question, “How and in what areas is the community currently using smart technologies?” The results component of an innovation plan should outline answers to the subsequent question, “In what areas do we identify initiatives for smart technology, and how will we measure successful integration and evidence-based outcomes of those technologies?”

Many communities may choose to tie their outcomes to already established performance or strategic measures. Bellevue’s Smart Strategic Plan, for example, outlines the city’s overarching outcome measures such as livability, sustainability, and resiliency, and connects to how the implementation of its innovation plan will specifically impact these outcome measures and how that impact will be measured.

Other smart community frameworks may frame objectives around specific infrastructure areas. The 2016 White House Report to the President: Technology and the Future of Cities ( outlines the table on infrastructure areas and their potential technologies, concepts, and objectives (see Figure 2).

Timeline. As is common with many other types of strategic plans, an innovation plan should include a high-level timeline for each initiative that has received buy-in from organizational leadership, stakeholders, and community partners.

The timeline may include several phases that reflect an initial phase of investment, skill set building, and funding efforts; one or multiple phases for technology and data integration efforts; and a refinement and “go-live” phase where smart technology and outcome assessment may be deployed in real time.

Budget coordination. An innovation plan should be updated on a regular basis (two to five years) and coordinated with the budget process. The budget development process can include budget requests that include multiple criteria, including innovation. Considering innovation in the budgeting process further demonstrates an organization’s commitment to it.

At a minimum within the first phase, an innovation plan should provide a timeline for specific initiatives within each outcome area including areas of investment, hiring, data collection, procurement, and so forth. This information should be presented to elected officials along with recommendations on the next round of innovation.

When coordinated with the budget process, it allows for policy support through the allocation of funds.

Transparency. Internally, staff and service partners need to receive updates and stories about how individuals and teams are driving innovation. Organizations can communicate successes and shortcomings along with lessons learned. It is important to celebrate accomplishments and find time to recognize those involved with innovation. This will foster confidence in individuals and reinforce that they are the source of innovation.

To increase accountability and transparency, a community should make its innovation plan accessible on its website. Regular updates and reports will help communicate benefits and progress to both decision-makers and the general public.

Successful innovation can be a powerful way to demonstrate how local governments are wisely using local tax dollars in a measurable way to produce services that meet the needs of their communities.

In the case of smart communities, publishing results and datasets associated with before and after implementation of the services, processes, regulations, and policies found in the innovation plan, especially new technologies, will provide valuable, full transparency to the public. Public datasets should be easily accessible online and cleaned so stakeholders can readily use the data.

Especially as smart technologies are implemented, live datasets should be available and refreshed in real time and application programming interfaces (APIs) to the data should be defined and published for community and research use.

An Important Tool

Innovation is an important tool for governments to continue to optimize resource allocation, enhance quality of life, drive economic development, and provide quality services. As more local governments embrace innovation, they will need to develop a strategy to improve the time it takes to work through idea generation, development, and implementation, while reducing risks and maximizing benefits.

Successful innovation that helps communities address problems, issues, and opportunities will justify further investments. An innovation plan is an important step on the journey to developing an innovative culture.

Endnotes and References

1 “It took decades for the telephone to reach 50% of households, beginning before 1900. It took five years or less for cellphones to accomplish the same penetration in 1990. … innovations introduced more recently are being adopted more quickly.” From “The Pace of Technology Adoption is Speeding Up” by Rita Gunther McGrath, Harvard Business Review, November 25, 2013.

Initial Scoping Document, courtesy of Georgetown, Texas.

Wayne Reed is assistant city manager, Georgetown, Texas (, and Marina Giloi is a management adviser, MC2 Consulting, Seattle, Washington (