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Commentary Article March 1st, 2022
Cities • Innovation • Delivery • Justice

Providence: A City that Works for its Residents

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.@CityofProv participated in @BloombergDotOrg Innovation Training delivered w/ @CPI_foundation, to help cities adopt innovative techniques that engage residents

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"Given the disproportionate impact of #COVID19 on low-income communities of color, the @CityofProv Innovation Team focused their efforts on building more racially equitable & accessible City services."

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“Engagement was the most useful part of the program. Speaking directly with residents about their needs for a more responsive City government was key during this process" @davedos from @CityofProv

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Partnering for Learning

We put our vision for government into practice through learning partner projects that align with our values and help reimagine government so that it works for everyone.

Partner with us

From 2020-2021, Providence, RI participated in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Training. Delivered in partnership with the Centre for Public Impact (CPI), Innovation Training is designed to help cities adopt cutting-edge innovation techniques that engage residents in testing, adapting, and scaling ideas with the potential for long-term impact.

History

Providence, the capital city of Rhode Island, is the most diverse and populated city in the state, with over two-thirds of residents identifying as non-white and many languages spoken. Founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, Providence is one of the oldest cities in the country, rich with history while simultaneously on the cutting edge of urban design. Often referred to as the "Creative Capital," Providence is known for vibrant art, eclectic dining and plentiful parks and green spaces, as well as an attractive environment for businesses, workers and visitors alike.

The Innovation Program

Given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on low-income communities of color, and the nationwide calls for policy solutions that address systemic racism, the Providence Innovation Team focused their efforts on building more racially equitable and accessible City services.

During the height of the pandemic, a group of interdepartmental employees from the City of Providence, known as the "Providence Innovation Team," met virtually for over 11 months to participate in the Bloomberg-Harvard City Leadership Initiative: Innovation Track.  Throughout this process, the group had the opportunity to learn from Bloomberg, Harvard, the Center for Public Impact and peer cities. Perhaps most importantly, they were also able to hear and learn from residents themselves. Given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on low-income communities of color, and the nationwide calls for policy solutions that address systemic racism, the Providence Innovation Team focused their efforts on building more racially equitable and accessible City services.

Engaging Residents

Throughout the program, the Providence Innovation Team engaged residents, primarily focusing on outreach to residents of color from diverse communities. The team worked to develop an understanding of the barriers to accessing city services in Providence, as well as factors that influenced residents' trust in and attitudes towards city government. Residents from all areas of the city participated in virtual calls, prototyping and testing sessions. These residents provided critical information for the Providence Innovation Team to consider while developing low-barrier, high-impact solutions to increasing the accessibility of city services.

In order to increase trust with government institutions, residents wanted the City to demonstrate more clearly that their input is essential and highly valued.

The Providence Innovation Team heard some hard truths, alongside great recommendations from residents, both of which helped to provide direction and strategies for ways to increase the confidence of residents of color that City services are equally accessible to them. The Providence Innovation Team consistently heard throughout their discussions with residents that in order to increase trust with government institutions, residents wanted the City to demonstrate more clearly that their input is essential and highly valued.

"The Innovation Track provided me the tools to honestly assess the equity of service delivery in Providence, and to trust that residents bearing the challenges of those inequities are the most important partners in crafting solutions," said Bret Jacob, Mayor Elorza's Director of Research and Development and LGBTQIA+ Liaison for the City of Providence.

Through this process, residents conveyed that they wanted City employees to embody a culture of service, and to feel secure in knowing they can depend on City employees to go the extra mile if needed. The Providence Innovation Team also heard that residents wanted to see faces in City government that represent the diversity of the communities of color that live and work here.

“I found the engagement portion to be the most useful and constructive part of the entire program. Speaking directly with residents about their needs and desires for a more responsive City government was key during this process, " said David dosReis, GIS Program Manager for the City of Providence. "Though there were certainly challenges, I think we were able to connect with residents at a personal level, build trust and collectively come up with concrete solutions.”

Solutions

Although the pandemic created opportunities for innovation as many City services were made available online, it also laid bare the antiquated approach of the City's current service delivery model, particularly with in-person transactions. An honest assessment of these continued challenges presented an opportunity to make services more accessible in a new way - by extending the availability of city services in City Hall, offering longer service hours one day each month. As of January 2022, the City now offers extended hours for in-person services on the first Wednesday of each month. This allows residents whose work hours or childcare obligations may not allow them to visit City Hall during traditional businesses hours to come later in the day to complete essential services like paying their taxes, obtaining a birth certificate or accessing any other service required to be completed in person.

Although the pandemic created opportunities for innovation as many City services were made available online, it also laid bare the antiquated approach of the City's current service delivery model.

With this pilot program underway, the Providence Innovation Team is exploring future opportunities to bring services closer to residents and in their neighborhoods. To address two key barriers communicated by residents - parking and language access - the team is currently scoping and evaluating satellite locations where residents could engage with City services closer to their own homes and with City employees fluent in languages other than English when appropriate. The City is also working to engage residents sooner in projects that will impact them, especially by working through neighborhood community centers, faith groups and other trusted messengers within the city.

"Participating in the Center for Public Impact course taught me to think outside of the box in all aspects of my life, both professional and personal," said Alexandra Batista, Director of Latino Affairs and Senior Advisor. "My work is centered around engaging with and supporting our Providence communities, and I look forward to the new ways we'll be able to serve individuals through these innovations."

Written by:

Bonnie Howland IT Application Project Manager, City of Providence
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Bret Jacob Director of Research and Development, Mayor Jorge O. Elorza
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Obed Papp Program Manager & Regional Coalition Director, City of Providence’s Healthy Communities Office
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Alexandra Batista Director of Latino Affairs & Senior Advisor, Mayor Jorge O. Elorza
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David dosReis GIS Program Manager, City of Providence
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Grace Diaz MBE/WBE Outreach Director, City of Providence
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