Guest writer Asheley Van Ness, Associate Principal, Civic Consulting Alliance, Chicago
For two years, Civic Consulting Alliance and our partners have been helping to address issues in the criminal justice system, including revamping Cook County Central Bond Court.
We have been working with Cook County’s criminal justice stakeholders—the Cook County Board President, Sheriff, Chief Judge, State’s Attorney, Public Defender, Clerk, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, and the Illinois Supreme Court—to reduce the detainment of non-violent individuals.
As a result of this collaboration, 2,400 fewer people are detained every day in Cook County Jail and nearly half of all individuals are released from Bond Court without having to post a money bail, compared to Bond Court proceedings two years ago.
This collaboration has included seven projects and eight pro bono partners since its start. As one example, CannonDesign worked with the stakeholders and former detainees to understand the challenges created by the current physical design of the courtroom. The team identified several factors that prevent judges from receiving the information needed to make well-informed, fair decisions and that limit the public’s understanding of court proceedings. CannonDesign then created designs to address the physical problems and transform the courtroom into an environment that commands dignity and decorum and facilitates better decision-making.
The stakeholders all agreed to the proposed changes, and construction of the new courtroom is scheduled to begin.
By changing the physical courtroom design, we hope to improve trust and mutual respect between everyone in the courtroom, ensure judges receive the information they need to make fair bond decisions, and ultimately improve outcomes for detainees.
“The redesign of the Central Bond Court presented us with a compelling, challenging design problem, which affects many of our fellow citizens on a daily basis,” said Delia Conache, a project architect at CannonDesign. “Our team greatly enjoyed the close partnership with Civic Consulting Alliance over the course of the project, as well as the close collaboration with the stakeholder agencies involved.”
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?
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.
Paint the big picture
Treat it as a “real” project
If it’s not working, speak up
Don’t get distracted
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.”
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?
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.
But with disinvestment from all levels of government, NYCHA has been unable to keep homes in good shape and to connect residents to community resources and economic opportunities.
“Aggressive action is necessary to deliver to NYCHA’s residents the resources and services they have long deserved, and to sustain the Authority for the long term,” according to NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye. Therefore, NYCHA developed a long-term plan to change fundamentally how they operate in order to create safe, clean, connected communities.
In the midst of planning, the non-partisan nonprofit Civic Consulting offered pro bono assistance. And the first area of collaboration has been to develop a ground-floor leasing strategy.
With 328 developments around the city, NYCHA has tremendous space on the ground floor, in fact, 2.5 million square feet that’s non-residential. Roughly a tenth is zoned commercial, and those storefronts enjoy very low vacancy. The other spaces are often under-utilized or off line altogether: former laundry rooms, management offices, community centers, storage, and more.
As NYCHA leadership – including the Chair and the Vice President of Real Estate Services – discussed these assets with Civic Consulting, it became clear that NYCHA alone did not have the resources to repair and reprogram these spaces. New partnerships would be needed.
The question is, who has both the interest and the resources to unlock the potential of these spaces?
How do you upgrade millions of square feet of public housing?
Can going to public hospitals to get treated become a positive experience?
At the Meeting of the Minds, Alexander Shermansong moderated a keynote conversation around “Local Answers for Under-Resourced Cities,” with two of his New York collaborators, Karina Totah, Senior Advisor to the Chair at New York City Housing Authority and Steven Newmark, Senior Policy Advisor & Counsel to Mayor Bill Bill de Blasio – two forward-thinking government change-makers.
The conversation speaks to how pro bono services can enable city government to implement lasting solutions, leading to meaningful impact for millions of people.
“When you constantly deal with a deficit, the idea of trying of being forward-thinking and thinking long-term becomes more difficult to do,” says Steven. “That’s really when you need to bring individuals that can cross those sectors, that can bring those agencies, external experts, and staffers together.”
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.
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.
Every day we see how Silicon Valley’s innovators and entrepreneurs are changing the world through new ideas and technologies: our smartphones, our fitness trackers, the smart meter at home, the cloud at our workplace, the latest app we download. Undeniably we are riding a wave of technological innovation at a breakneck pace.
What’s not as obvious is the wave of innovative change in the way we live: unifying neighborhoods, creating integrated communication systems, even speeding up basic maintenance of city streets. This second wave of innovation — a wave of civic innovation — is centered around people leveraging newfound access to information and other people to help not just themselves, but larger society.
Civic innovation is the process of designing and improving how people live, government works, and communities thrive.
When you think about it, it’s pretty obvious that we need civic innovation just as much as we need Silicon Valley innovation — if not more. What’s not as obvious is the role of government. Often, we blame government for everything that’s wrong — dysfunctional politics, bad traffic, redundant forms and waste. But government, particularly local government, needs to be tapped as part of the answer. From your mayor to your beat cop, local government is where progress is made; and there’s a new consortium of civic-focused groups, communities, and partnerships working to enable cities to innovate and create lasting change now.
This collaboration is the inaugural effort between the Civic Consulting USA and CCA, marked by our first-ever Civic Innovation Fellow, MBA in Strategic Foresight candidate Alida Draudt. Ali is analyzing the civic fabric of hundreds of cities across the US to determine which are ripest to host innovation hubs both short and long term.
As with many of the efforts around innovation, from Code for America to the Fuse Corps Fellowship and Bayes Impact, there is a legion of civic innovators working in our nation’s cities. Our efforts will aim to take scalable, proven projects from the history of Civic Consulting work and marry that with the DMBA acumen and methods to unleash a new layer of impact.
This strategic partnership will build upon the momentum of innovation work taking place nationally, and offer unique experience to test, try, pilot, and tinker in civic innovation while making real change in our own communities. We are excited to announce this partnership, and look forward to the waves of innovation to come.
Chief Executive Officer
Civic Consulting USA
California College of the Arts
Director of Civic Innovation
Civic Consulting USA
DMBA – Strategic Foresight Candidate 2016 + Civic Innovation Fellow
California College of the Arts
We are all “makers.” We dream. We tinker. We design. We develop. We trouble-shoot and we deploy. Across industry — public, private or government – we’re all making something; we’re all part of the maker movement.
I participated in a recent panel at Governing’s Performance and Innovation Summit in Louisville with leaders from Living Cities, Philadelphia’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and the Louisville Mayor’s Office. It struck me that there are also civic makers, who are tinkering with our neighborhoods, our communities, and the things that make our cities exciting.
Throughout the panel, we returned to more and more examples of technology and tools that further democratize civic engagement. And it’s not just San Francisco, Chicago and New York. We found examples everywhere of makers energizing the social and economic fabric of our cities. And the question we grappled with as a panel was how partners and those from within the maker movement can lead to lasting social impact.
Big-BatLouisville, the wonderful host of the conference and the birthplace of The Slugger, is a veritable glimpse of the maker movement’s history. The legendary baseball bat began humbly when Bud Hellerich saw a player break his bat during a game over one hundred years ago. After the game, Bud took the player to his father’s woodworking shop where they designed a new bat together.
Bud was enthusiastic, his father was impressed and he stepped aside to encourage his son’s ‘making’. Word quickly traveled: Players came by the dozens to the family’s wood shop. The likes of Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, and the World Series Champion SF Giants have all used Louisville Sluggers. Today, the factory produces nearly two million bats annually. A walk through the factory is a walkthrough the history of innovation of our great nation – the company’s traditional bat-making methods now enhanced by a one-of-a-kind computer that produced consistency from every order. The new technology emerged from an iterative process which tested, tried, and developed each successive produce – that’s the maker process.
Louisville also offers great examples of the civic maker movement today. When Mayor Greg Fisher hosted a conference a few years back on the maker movement, his idea was that government should be supportive of innovation and encourage entrepreneurs. At the same time the government, understandably, will not lead the innovation. Ted Smith, Louisville’s Chief Innovation Officer, shared a little insight with me as to how Louisville added the “civic” into the makers’ movement.
It started when GE opened its doors to makers and entrepreneurs in 2013. As a result, community members and government staff came to the table too. This was an unprecedented moment signaling new ways for corporate and community to work together to spur new products, grow the local talent pool and encourage more public-private cooperation. With cross-sector partners at the table – government, corporate, academe, and community – the effort set in motion a wave of activity which according to Smith “culminated in a GE joint venture with Local motors – called FirstBuild” – located at the University of Louisville-Belknap Campus.
In addition to the efforts the city leadership supported, the nonprofit WaterStep organized Hack2O, a Water Solutions hackathon to innovate clean water solutions in global communities.
So what can cities learn from Louisville?
One, leaders need to create a safe place for people to test and try new ideas, sometimes fail. Bud needed his father’s permission to craft, develop and test out different baseball bats. FirstBuild came from Mayor Fisher, GE, and other leaders letting the makers see where their innovations took them as they worked across sectors in new ways.
Secondly, the big, game-changing things we are pursuing take partnerships. Without the baseball player in the workshop with him, Bud wouldn’t have gotten the Slugger right. Similarly, GE needed to bring community members in before the idea for FirstBuild came out.
Near the end of my tour of Slugger on historic West Main, my tourguide shared a story about Ted Williams, the hall of famer and last MLB player to hit .400. Apparently, Williams was particularly particular about his bats. He ordered the same bat over and over. But one bat Williams sent it back because “it didn’t grip right.” They checked the order, and it was made just like the previous ones, but when they measured it, sure enough, it didn’t match. There’s nothing like the hands of the batter to tell if the bat’s right and there’s lots of work to do. Imagine if our cities had that similar ability to listen, to tinker, to trouble shoot, and to deploy. Our making continues…
Civic Consulting Minnesota is just getting started, and already they’re making news.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman asked the newly formed public-private pro bono partnership for help getting ready for the snow season.
The city is already implementing Civic Consulting’s recommendations and aims to clear snow on 90% of major streets within 20 hours of a major storm. Tracking social media will help identify areas that need extra attention.
Business Mentor NY began working with LinkedIn and Civic Consulting to connect with pro bono professionals throughout New York State. Civic Consulting connected Business Mentor NY with LinkedIn’s Volunteer Marketplace, a site for professionals to identify and pursue skills-based volunteering opportunities.
In a survey, 82% of LinkedIn members stated that they wanted to volunteer their skills.
“Business Mentor NY is a great opportunity for LinkedIn members to do just that, use their professional skills for social good,” said Alison Dorsey of LinkedIn.
The relationship with LinkedIn’s Volunteer Marketplace is a huge win for Business Mentor NY, enabling us to discover and connect with professionals who have expressed interest in high-quality, skills-based volunteering opportunities. And there are quite a few, as over one-million LinkedIn members have indicated that they would like to do skills-based volunteering!
Professionals are actively seeking out volunteer opportunities to leverage their skill sets make a positive impact on the world outside work. LinkedIn members also love Business Mentor NY, with hundreds of professionals applying to mentor our businesses.
Skills-based volunteering is good for your career, too.
Volunteering is a great way to develop leadership skills, expand your professional network, and obtain new skills by trying new approaches. In a LinkedIn survey, 42% of hiring managers stated that they consider volunteer work equivalent to full-time work experience. And 20% said they had hired someone because of her or his volunteer experience.
Try your passion on for size.
Everyone dreams of earning a living from what they love doing. Volunteering is a great way to test-drive your passion as a career. It’s an opportunity to do what you enjoy in a low-risk setting and also highlight your talents, which could prepare you for that dream job.
You never know who you’ll connect with.
Volunteering exposes you to people you would not encounter otherwise. Who knows, maybe you’ll help the next cronut-maker or Steve Jobs get off the ground!
With the help of pro bono partners, Chicago created a single, unified voice for all the great things you can do and see in the city, and tourism is growing.
Like many cities, Chicago used to have separate entities focused on attracting different types of tourists. This appeared to make sense: leisure tourists and business tourists were different animals (so the thinking went), and you needed different strategies and messages to attract each. But Chicago was not competing well in comparison to other cities like New York, and the City leaders wanted to know why.
They reached out to the Civic Consulting Alliance to help them estimate Chicago’s performance against other cities, and better understand the best practices in bringing tourists (and tourist dollars) into Chicago.
With support from the Civic Consulting Alliance and pro bono partners Griffin Strategic Advisors LLC and Jones Day, the City of Chicago looked at ten comparable cities (including Philadelphia and New York), and what they found surprised them. It appeared that cities with unified marketing strategies were more successful at attracting all kinds of tourists.
With this in mind, in the summer of 2012 the City of Chicago merged two separate marketing entities creating a single organization, Choose Chicago, charged with promoting both leisure and business tourism to the city. Since Choose was created, tourism has risen significantly, with record hotel occupancy of more than 75 percent and record visitation of more than 46 million visitors in 2013.
Indeed, Chicago’s efforts have been so successful that now they are getting noticed. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently highlighted Choose Chicago as a model that Philadelphia (one of the ten cities Chicago initially used to compare itself) might want to emulate.
They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, and why wouldn’t another city want to copy a success like this? Bringing together public and private partners to seek new and practical solutions that help cities grow is at the heart of the Civic Consulting model. Kudos to the Civic Consulting Alliance, and to Philadelphia for knowing a good thing when they see it.