Why Turin asks city workers for ideas to make government more efficient

Turin city employee Gianfranco Padovano (right) was one of the winners of a competition to improve city government. (City of Turin photo)

Workers at Turin’s city hall drink 160,000 cups of coffee and tea each year from vending machines. Each drink comes in a plastic cup. This got Cristiana Galotto, a public employee in the northern Italian city, thinking. Why not save the plastic and have people use their own mugs instead?

Galotto suggested that simple but brilliant idea recently in a contest for city employees. Known as Innova.TO, the contest aimed to inspire city workers — managers excluded — to suggest ways to make the inner workings of city government more efficient. Swapping plastic cups for mugs was one of ten winning ideas. It will be implemented next year when the city negotiates its next vending machine contract.

Other winning ideas were equally obvious but significant. One employee suggested using sensors to adjust lighting intensity and reduce energy consumption in public buildings. Another suggested using more web-based video conferencing to reduce the time and energy spent getting to meetings. Digitizing workflows that currently happen on paper was a common theme in the applications.

Employee competitions are nothing new, of course. But in an era when urban innovation is assumed to flow top-down (from clever mayors) or bottom-up (from citizens, civil society and the private sector), Innova.TO reminds us to not forget the middle. Bureaucrats have ideas, too — if anyone cares to ask them.

[Read: Can co-working on a deadline create better public policy?]

The idea to host such a competition in Turin was itself the suggestion of a couple of city employees, Fabrizio Barbiero and Michele Fatibene, of the Smart City and Innovation Department. They received strong political support from the city government and managed the project through its first round in 2014.

“We invented the Innova.TO competition while attending a master class on smart cities,” Barbiero recalls. “The class was focused on the value of technologies to create innovation. But we were convinced that in a local government context, it’s only possible to create true innovation if you value the human capital.”

Fatibene adds: “We wanted employees to have the opportunity to imagine their daily actions at work in a different way.”

Private sector support

One key to making Innova.TO work was involving the private sector. Several companies with a strong presence in Turin were invited to be part of the effort. Sponsors included the electric utility ENEL; Huawei, a Chinese telecommunication equipment company that has an innovation center in Turin; the local newspaper La Stampa; the local bike-sharing and car-sharing programs; and the bank Unicredit.

The companies provided some external motivation in the form of donated prizes that employees could win, such as electric bikes, cell phones, newspaper subscriptions, or free use of bike- and car-sharing. They also provided some external credibility, making the competition feel like more than just a human resources exercise.

Elena Deambrogio suggested a change to the Turin’s rule-bound procurement processes. (City of Turin photo)

“The private sector partners were impressed to see the cultural change within the local public administration system,” says Fatibene. “This helped us to support the initiative.”

Employees could submit ideas to make any internal processes of government more efficient. Ideas did not have to be limited to the department where they work.  A total of 111 employees submitted 71 ideas — some submissions came from teams of more than one.

A jury composed of city managers as well as representatives of local universities did the judging. They scored submissions based on three criteria: feasibility, innovativeness and financial sustainability. They winnowed the list down to a short list of 19 ideas worthy of receiving prizes; the city committed to the ten ideas that were seen as the most feasible.

Another key aspect of the competition was that the employees who proposed the ideas were put in charge of the implementation. Some of the winners doubted this would actually happen.

“Most of the employees were not sure if this really had political support,” says Elena Deambrogio, one of the winners. “Many of the winners were surprised to find the competition was real, and not just a theoretical exercise, when they were called by the city manager to define an implementation plan.”

‘The shake we needed’

The idea Deambrogio came up with was particularly challenging: to reinvent the city’s procurement process. Deambrogio, who works in this area, noticed how rule-bound purchasing procedures had a way of stifling innovation. If the city’s buyers didn’t know a creative solution existed in the marketplace, there was virtually no chance of the city procuring it.

Deambrogio’s idea was to create a cross-sectoral team of “smart” procurement experts who can assist all the different city departments in different phases of the purchasing process. They’d help identify the city’s needs, help analyze what innovative goods and services are available, help prepare the tender documents, and help evaluate the proposals.

“We have built up a team of facilitators to support their colleagues in different city departments,” Deambrogio says. “It is contributing to make tender procedures more efficient, because it is not possible to apply normal rules to the tenders regarding innovation.”

Another idea, one that is still on its way to being implemented, is a twist on crowdfunding. In Italy, taxpayers can choose to send a small portion of their taxes to a charity, association, university or non-governmental organization. These are known as “5 x 1,000” funds. Taxpayers also can give the money to public authorities such as a city government, although most municipalities do not advertise this much.

[Read: Albania hopes fewer local governments means better-run cities]

Gianfranco Padovano, an employee in Turin’s Youth Policies Department, had an idea to change that. Borrowing an idea from Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms, Padovano suggested that more taxpayers might give their 5 x 1,000 to the city if they could choose which projects to fund. The city is now building a platform to allow exactly that. Padovano hopes it won’t just engage more residents but also bring a level of transparency to 5 x 1,000 giving that most of the other charities and NGOs that receive these funds don’t match.

The ideas that came out of the first round of Innova.TO have inspired the city to embark on a second round of the competition later this year. City management is also applying the same principles as it figures out how to implement teleworking policies, a topic of much debate lately in Italy. A group of employees was asked to propose ideas, some of which are available here.

“In our city, we have many young and innovative employees who have skills which often are not recognized or promoted in such a vertical structure,” says Enzo Lavolta, deputy mayor in charge of innovation and smart cities policies. “Innova.TO gave the local authority the shake we needed.”

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Simone is a Rome-based journalist who covers innovation, sustainability and urban issues.   Full bio

LEARNING FROM TURIN

  • Through a competition called Innova.TO, city workers were asked to submit ideas for making local government more efficient.
  • Private-sector companies donated prizes such as e-bikes and cell phones to reward employees for winning entries. 
  • Employees who proposed winning ides were put in charge of the implementation.

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