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Nicole Pollock – Chief Innovation Officer, City of Providence

Watch Her Make City Services More Effective

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Any discussion of Nicole Pollock’s work is necessarily wonky and laden with tech jargon – it’s just the nature of the beast. She is the first to occupy the newly created role of Chief Innovation Officer at City Hall, one of Mayor Elorza’s signature proposals as a candidate. In short, her role is to use technology, data, and process improvements to make government more efficient and responsive. This requires both high tech and common sense solutions: For example, when a City paperwork process requires five different signatures, Pollock’s job is not only to speed up that process by digitizing it, but also to ask, “Why do we need five signatures in the first place?”

What is your background?
I grew up in small town Wisconsin, and by the time I started sixth grade knew that I wanted to be part of a world bigger than that town. At 16, I left home to go to an alternative high school and at 18 headed to Providence to attend Brown University. I studied the dynamics between environment and society during those four years, and that was the focus of the work I did in the first few years of my career.

In 2011, I transitioned to working for government, taking a post leading policy and program development efforts for the Department of Environmental Management. That was my pivot point. That was where I began to work on system innovation more holistically, and was energized by the impact process improvement and customer-centered design had on our services. I started to realize that if we were going to achieve real change in this state, policy wasn’t going to cut it. We needed to dive deep into process and better empower the people doing the work to allow for sustainable, continuous change.

Transitioning to being the Chief Innovation Officer for Mayor Elorza in the City of Providence allowed me the opportunity to focus on process innovation at a much deeper level, and it has been an exciting ride thus far.

What does a Chief Innovation Officer do?

At a high level, my role is to work collaboratively with internal and external stakeholders to streamline the delivery of city services for residents, businesses, and visitors. That means a lot of different things at a lot of different scales and requires a balanced focus on people and process. And I do not do it alone. The Mayor has invested in an Innovation Team that includes an Innovation Coordinator and Innovation Manager, and will soon include an Open Data Manager. As a team, we coordinate everything from continuous improvement trainings for City employees to major Departmental process innovation projects involving new IT systems, new office layouts, and new workflows.

In between all of that work are clear processes for testing, engagement, and scaling – and we are at varying points on different projects. Overall, if I were trying to define innovation at City Hall, it is driving a continuous ideation, testing, and implementation cycle in as many areas as possible to improve what we do for the people we serve. If we don’t always have our eye on what we could do a little better, and try out new ideas to get there, we will never meet the basic expectations and needs of our community. Bottom line, this is about making government better for everyone – for our staff and for our customers.

What are some opportunities for innovation in city government?
One major opportunity is re-thinking what management is, and how we engage in work within our own teams. If no one is sharing ideas and encouraged to try new things, you do not have an environment where much is going to change. We are tackling this head on through providing new tools, trainings, and incentives for innovation.

Another huge opportunity is better partnering with the State and other municipalities to look more holistically at processes that are cross-governmental. When you open a business in Providence you work with the City and the State, and if we really care about making that experience pleasant for our businesses and entrepreneurs, we have got to care just as much about what happens at the State level as what happens right here in the City. We are working very closely with the State and partners like (Chief Digital Officer for the State) Thom Guertin to ensure change is happening at both levels.

More directly, we are working to simplify licensing and permitting processes through streamlining application processes and expanding our payment platforms. We are building new partnerships locally and globally to expand opportunities for change in local government, and we are investing in open government and transparency tools (check out openpvd.com) to give as much information as possible to the public about what we are doing and how we are doing it.

People tend to think of innovation in terms of better websites or more effective data tracking, but how does innovation apply to city government as it exists offline?
Web tools and new IT platforms are certainly a major part of the formula for innovation, but you have to be smart about when and where they enter the picture. So much of process innovation is about skills development and in-office process flow. I have seen far too many examples of a manager, new director, or consultant come in and insist on a specific IT solution, only to watch that “solution” result in greater inefficiencies because they did not analyze their business processes first, provide the instructional tools necessary for staff to succeed, or put resources into obvious needed fixes.

At least 80% of making a process better is figuring out how to optimize staff productivity and clarity within a certain process, and 20% is applying technology to certain parts of that process to drive efficiency and convenience for the customer. A great example is signatures for approval. I have seen some forms that require five-plus signatures before they are approved, and it takes a lot of time to get those signatures. Rather than focusing on digitizing that workflow, we first have to ask, “Why do we need five signatures? How can we get that number to two or one?” Cracking that nut is going to save more time and money than digitizing the workflow for getting the five signatures.

Are there any completed projects you can point to as examples of what you’d like to accomplish?
Less than two months into my job, we launched the City’s first open budget tool. That took a lot of work, delving into an unfamiliar budgeting process and figuring out a way to present that information in a digestible, compelling format. Another early success was launching a new training platform with Amica Insurance. That program has reached over 300 City employees thus far, and will reach another 1200 in 2016.

We have also started training staff in managing and supporting continuous improvement through our InnovatePVD training initiative, which will ensure we have 12 experts trained in improving processes within each department by the end of 2016. Work here has already started, and we have 20+ process improvement projects with departments happening all over the City.

Lastly, we have taken a hard look at our IT contracts and will be launching several new tools in 2016. Completing that analysis, working to find the best IT tools to support our process improvement work and enhanced transparency, and now finally having contracts and work started feels like an accomplishment, but making those new tools available throughout 2016 will feel like we are making good, in the most tangible way, on our commitment to enhancing the customer experience.

What’s on your agenda for 2016?
In addition to training, developing new open data and online tools for our customers, and continuing to work with departments on process improvement, we will expand our partnerships with higher education institutions, local businesses, and other cities to enhance the work we are already doing and to give us new perspectives on how we approach programming, training, and civic engagement. We will hold our first Hackathon, and continue to hold monthly coding events for the community. And we will continue to take deep dives into departmental processes with staff to bring more value to the work they do each day and to deliver top-notch government services to our customers.

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