Bold ideas to create jobs and solve real city challenges

NYCx will open urban spaces as test beds for new technologies.

Through NYCx, the City of New York engages the tech industry to solve real-world problems and call on the tech vanguard to make NYC the most fair, equitable, and sustainable city in the world.

  • Co-Lab Challenges invite startups and entrepreneurs to work directly with community residents to solve neighborhood challenges while aiming to scale solutions for common issues for all New Yorkers.
  • Moonshot Challenges encourage global entrepreneurs to think big about NYC’s most ambitious problems, propose bold solutions, and deliver groundbreaking business models that transform and improve the lives of city dwellers globally.

Thanks to a partnership with The Boston Consulting Group, Bain & Company, and a team of skilled volunteers, Civic Consulting USA is a key part of of this new program.

A diverse group of technology and community luminaries are guiding NYCx, including:

“NYCx will transform the relationship between city government, community and the tech industry to be more collaborative and inclusive,” says Miguel Gamiño, Jr., New York City Chief Technology Officer.  “If we can test and solve critical challenges together in NYC and achieve our City’s goals, we can offer these solutions for other cities facing similar issues.”

Civic Spirit, Civic Impact: How Partnerships Get Results

World Trade Center Oculus

Across America, businesses invest billions in pro bono services.  In case after case, however, the civic spirit doesn’t translate into civic results. How can we fix this?

World Trade Center Oculus

Too often, nonprofit and government executives look at securing pro bono support as an end in itself. We focus on finding a company to loan their staff, but then don’t pay as much attention to how to manage the free resources. As a result, too many projects end up sitting on a shelf. This poor implementation record has led to the common refrain: “You get what you pay for.”

The success rate is particularly dispiriting given the growing interest in pro bono work from the private sector. At conference after conference, skills-based volunteering is emerging as a hot trend. According to surveys, companies are looking for pro bono projects that are rewarding for their staff, provide professional development, and generate impact.

In any project, impact depends on a partner’s ability to deliver and also on the government agency’s skill at management. In many ways, managing pro bono resources is just the same as managing any other resources. It requires time, commitment, and honest feedback, even to the point of firing. In other ways, managing pro bono resources can be different: you need to be open with them before they’re on board, and the work needs to be meaningful.

Whoever your partner is, to translate their civic spirit into civic results, you need to be a good client for them. That means engaging them in the problem you’re trying to solve, not micromanaging their working activities. It means formalizing the relationship, just as you would with a contractor. And it means being open and honest even though it’s free. The following six guidelines spell out how to put these principles into practice.

  1. Brainstorm together
  2. Paint the big picture
  3. Treat it as a “real” project
  4. If it’s not working, speak up
  5. Don’t get distracted
  6. Take action

Brainstorm together

A transit authority executive noted that pro bono partners are better than paid vendors ― and not because of the price. In a typical procurement, he needs to specify the solution in detail before signing a contract. Sometimes, in the course of the work, he realizes the specifications were wrong, and he ends up paying the vendor to undo the work.

In contrast, with a pro bono partner, you’re not constrained by the public sector procurement process, and you have the chance to get experts to help you with the scope and specs. When the consultant is free, you have the freedom to figure out what you really need.

Paint the big picture

Companies contribute their time because they hope to make a real difference in the community. In practice, they donate three or four months of effort, which really isn’t enough to fix a sweeping problem. Therefore, it’s important for you to communicate how the project fits into the bigger picture.

In this vein, one city hall executive has secured millions of dollars of pro bono services because she provides full information about the problem and her situation. As she notes, “Once you describe the big picture, companies get really excited. They may end up doing graphic design for a public presentation, or legal analysis for new regulations, or a database of geographical and demographic data, but they understand how their small piece contributes to the big issues they read about in the paper.”

Treat it as a “real” project

Even when top companies are donating their time, the fact that their services are “free” can lead government agencies to believe they can define a project on the fly. Since the most successful projects have a fairly focused scope, officials should resist the temptation to improvise and instead chart a clear course at the outset.

Consider this example, when a budget director was asking an investment banker for help.  She explained how they got into the situation (multi-hundred-million budget gap) and some of her big ideas to fix it. In response, the investment banker proposed a six week analysis to test these ideas. They staffed the project together, so that the analysis could be incorporated in real time into the executive budget. It works so well, the bank came back to do a similar project the following year and give another round of analysts the same high-impact experience.

If you wouldn’t pay a company to do work without a scope, why would you want a free company to work aimlessly? This approach will still siphon time from you and your staff―you just won’t know to what end.

If it’s not working, speak up

It’s hard to give good feedback to people giving things for free. (As noted above, these services aren’t really free.) Nonetheless, one of the best ways to develop rapport with a pro bono partner is to give targeted negative feedback when merited. Rather than turning away or shutting down, you will likely see an increased commitment to the project.

For example, here’s a great experience that was actually a horrible situation. The project wasn’t going anywhere. The team had spent two months on the ground without anything to show for it, and the project looked like a colossal waste of time. At that point, the agency head called the company requested a new project manager. Later, the company’s office head recalled, “This call showed a level a trust, a level of commitment – it was a chance to get back on track.”

Remember that ignoring a poorly performing project will guarantee that it produces nothing of value. Since companies do pro bono work for the public good, all parties are losing out.

Don’t get distracted

One of the top complaints of those who do pro bono work (although they rarely complain) is that government agencies aren’t responsive. Maybe they’ve asked for some analysis but don’t make the time to hear the results. Or a problem comes up, but they don’t make a decision. Or the partner sends emails but gets no reply.

In contrast, when professionals describe good work experiences, the responsiveness sounds a lot like the basics: you return calls, you don’t cancel meetings, you read your e-mail. But the basics take time – particularly when many agencies are already overwhelmed with their core responsibilities. Although being responsive can seem like a huge commitment, the benefits are apparent very quickly. As one senior consultant related, “The clients we work with are used to being reactive. Our resources give them the chance to be proactive―that’s what the time is for.”

Take action

Even before a project wraps up, it’s critical is to take action. Without your decision and action, their investment will wither on the shelf.

It’s easy to name the obstacles to implementation: your staff might be skeptical, you might not have all the details figured out, or maybe you don’t yet have the funds allocated for new systems. One of the biggest frustrations is when the end result is “shelfware”: detailed reports and recommendations, representing weeks or months of work, that just sit on a shelf.

To ensure that all of the work actually translates into tangible impact, it’s critical to assign staff as early as possible to oversee the implementation. The challenge: many government agencies simply don’t have the capacity. In the era of ever reducing head counts, it can be tough to find qualified staff who are willing and able to take on additional work.

We must be realistic about their capacity: if an initiative isn’t enough of a priority to assign an effective project manager, why should a partner donate its time and resources?

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When executives from top companies in the city offer their assistance, it can be incredibly difficult to turn down. Government officials, resist the temptation to accept such help unless you are prepared to match the contributions of a partner with your own strategic vision and organizational resources. When you commit to these six guidelines, you’ll enjoy both long-term relationships – and results that really matter to your constituents.

44 ways to make it work:
Secrets of successful cities

Representatives from 44 cities gathered in Miami last week. Why were so many cities, ranging from the bucolic to the megalopolis, gathered together?

It’s part of a major rethinking of the role of the federal government in the lives of city dwellers. Instead of just giving grants (or taking them away) the federal government and city executives think through their opportunities and implement innovative ideas.

It’s called the National Resource Network.

This gathering is their second annual national gathering of peer cities. As a strategic partner to this White House led initiative, Civic Consulting USA was invited to participate.

I heard 44 different accomplishment and 44 different challenges. Despite the chain-store-suburbinization of many American cities, the diversity of assets was startling:

  • Dearborn Michigan’s home of Ford Motor Company is a regional draw for tourists – and now they’re using that as a magnet for jobs and talent
  • Passaic New Jersey’s growing rapidly, thanks to immigration (as many as a three-quarters were born in other countries) – and now they’re opening several new schools
  • Atlanta Georgia’s made the streetcars free so people can get around easily, making downtown that much more accessible – and now they need more housing downtown

I also heard striking similarities from these leaders: every community in America cares about three or four things: good jobs (or jobs generally), educating kids and families, safe neighborhoods – and how to pay for it all.

Moreover, I heard common answers about how to “make it work.”

First off, it takes a leader bold enough to set a bold goal. In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (newly minted president of US Conference of Mayors) announced that the city aspires to attract 10,000 families to the city within the next 10 years. That takes reversing decades of population decline. Countering the tragedies of recent headlines. Cultivating a team of civil servants willing and able to figure it out. Stimulating a community-wide effort from across sectors to solve nuanced challenges, challenges like food deserts.

Secondly, it takes data and honesty. In the past, when a mayor set a bold goal, data were scarce, so it was easy enough to wait a few months and call it a win. Not anymore. We’re barraged with data from emails to infographics to open data. So city executives like those in Dallas who are willing to confront the brutal facts of sharply declining incomes are a step ahead in finding the answer. They’ve created NeighborhoodPlus a strategic framework to unite efforts across agencies, across sectors, and across the city.

Third, making it work takes allies on the ground. It’s not just press conferences where all the business executives or community leaders can stand by the podium and lend their name and face. It’s pragmatic partnerships where community colleges offer basic computer and customer service classes for city workers, as in Meridian Idaho.  It’s partnerships where business leaders stand up and invest in joint priorities, as in Winston-Salem.

While we’re all different, we’re all the same when it comes to wanting to make it work in the places where all things social, economics and culture connect: our cities. As the chief of staff of – pick your city – said, Let’s do it.

How can you give it away for free?

Alexander ShermansongB&W

“How can you afford to give your services away for free?” People often ask me, “and why wouldn’t a company providing the service want to bill you?”

A lot of people assume if you’re not charging for your services, it’s not worth charging for them. In fact, it used to be the case that “pro bono” meant you couldn’t get anyone to pay you – either because they didn’t have money or because you weren’t very good. Sometimes, it was just a polite way to let go of the people you didn’t want around anymore.

But nowadays it’s different: only the best people get to do pro bono work. Companies actually assign their top stars to community service projects. For example, a few years back we were getting ready for a pro bono project to eliminate paperwork and put more cops on the street. The firm working with us pro bono asked to postpone the project six weeks, because their top project manager was finishing a case in Asia and they wanted their best guy on the job.

Why would they take him off a billable client for community service?

For one, doing good is the right thing to do. Tom Wilson from The Allstate Corporation put it well: “Those of us who are business leaders have a particular responsibility to invest in our communities. We do business in these communities. We live in these communities.”

In fact, three-out-of-four companies see community engagement and impact as a top benefit for pro bono work. “Helping out this way is what GE employees do,” said Mike LaChapelle.

“The primary reason is a genuine desire to contribute,” agreed Jim Rechtin from Bain & Company. Then he went on: ”The side benefit is a tremendously positive impact on our culture and on the recruitment and retention of our employees.”

According to one national survey, 90% of HR professionals believe skills-based volunteering can be an effective way to develop leadership skills. What is it about pro bono projects that make them such fertile training grounds?

“The common cause – coming together to help solve the tough issues that face the urban community, without money in the way – creates a level of trust and respect simply not found in a business-as-usual relationship,” explained IDEO’s Andrew Burroughs. “This heightened level of trust allows access to a vast network of influencers and doers across the city, opening doors that otherwise might be closed, and creating some wonderful learning opportunities along the way.”

You also see an unusual mix of people on pro bono projects, which brings out the best in the team according to Frank Muller from Crust Young: “It is both gratifying and exhilarating to be part of a team with the brightest minds of some of the world’s leading strategy consulting firms.”

Simply put, “corporate citizenship efforts inspire our people,” states Mike Scimo of Accenture.

As you talk to business leaders across the country, you’ll hear again and again that pro bono is good HR strategy. These projects help their employees find meaning in their work (skills-based volunteers are 38% more likely to have high morale). That keeps their top performers from looking for other places to work. And pro bono projects put them in new situations to test their skills and try different approaches. When finding and retaining the right people is so crucial for your company’s success, you can’t afford not “to give it away for free.”