City managers learn about business innovations

Posted: March 31, 2014

PHILADELPHIA Equipped with a two-inch-thick binder full of notes and handouts, city fleet maintenance supervisor Thomas Hall drew charts and summaries in blue and green marker on a big whiteboard in a classroom at Philadelphia University.

Hall, a 23-year city employee, is usually busy making sure trucks in the city's aging fleet can tackle the latest snowstorm. But on Tuesday, he was explaining business innovation theories to city managers he normally wouldn't have worked with - perhaps not even met - had he not been selected to participate in the class.

The first class, that is, of municipal Innovation Academy.

The seven-week executive-level curriculum, designed by Philadelphia University in East Falls, is meant to promote innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration. Though the college has offered the Innovation Academy course to businesses before, this was the first time it partnered with a municipality - Philadelphia.

The municipal version was financed by $100,000 from the Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia, money Mayor Nutter set aside for training, innovation, and the like.

The 19 middle-management city workers, who were selected through supervisor recommendations, came in equally skeptical of the course, and having in common only the familiar foibles of government work: Limited budgets. Old equipment. People working in "silos."

By their last class on Tuesday, though, Hall and his classmates were on a first-name basis and excited to keep working together on real-life projects. The all-whiteboard walls of the classroom were marked up with charts, circles, arrows, and lists.

"This is a great bunch of people," Hall said. "They get involved. They want to do things."

One of the biggest take-aways for Hall was the business aspect of the course - learning how to stretch a budget by using technologies such as GPS to save on fuel and keeping better track of which vehicles are being used.

After all, Hall said, he is managing snow-removal trucks that date to the Blizzard of 1996.

The tool that seemed to garner the most attention and use was a geographic information system (GIS), which is designed to capture, store, and analyze geographical data.

Felicia Parker-Cox, a community organizer within the Department of Parks and Recreation, is charged with building local residents' stewardship around two main watersheds.

When it came to arranging a civic group to serve as "steward" for Tacony Creek Park, Parker-Cox was having a hard time organizing the various neighborhoods.

"Trying to get them to work together can be challenging because they are different neighborhoods with different needs," Parker-Cox said.

But when she learned at Innovation Academy about how GIS can be applied to many fields, a lightbulb went off in her head.

After having a city GIS expert run a demographic data search on the neighborhoods surrounding the Tacony Creek Park, she determined it would be best to recruit two civic groups - one each for the southern and northern parts of the park.

"I probably would not have known to do that" had it not been for the course, Parker-Cox said.

The academy classes had dense titles - such as "analyzing complexities through systems thinking" and "understanding end-user through ethnographic research" - but consisted mostly of breaking up into groups and brainstorming ideas for how to solve genuine city issues.

The breakout groups allowed the employees to not just learn together but network among themselves.

Robert T. Allen, assistant managing director for special events in charge of coordinating public safety, sanitation, and staging for events, swapped ideas with classmates who work in Parks and Rec, and in the 311 phone room, about working together on coordinating some of the city's biggest events.

"Even though we are all in the city of Philadelphia, it is really rare that we can get this variety of departments in one room," Allen said. "Just knowing the people to call is a definite plus."

Allen likely will be picking up the phone soon as planning for summer festivals kicks into gear.

Making use of the city's GIS software will also alleviate some of the planning work - especially if Pope Francis ends up visiting Philadelphia for the Roman Catholic Church's 2015 World Meeting of Families, as city and state officials hope. His presence would doubtless draw enormous crowds.

If the pope does make the trip, Allen said, "we are going to have to come up with new and creative ways to plan our response - and that is where this course fits in perfectly."

215-854-5520 @InqCVargas

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