Even a Small Amount of Funding Is Enough for Civic Innovators to Take Risks

A Look Back at Our Health Public Challenge — Part 2

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Last week, we discussed the goals behind our 2017 Healthy Public Challenge. This week, we wanted to take an in-depth look at one project in particular, and how it relates to funding innovation. 

People need capital in order to take risks and experiment. However, we believe that with the right mentoring and processes in place, funding dollars can go farther in pushing new ideas forward.

Our Healthy Public civic innovators were only awarded $10,000 to develop their product. In most sectors, an award of $10k is modest, well below the standard of funding for technology pilots. However, alongside our ten Healthy Public civic innovators, we learned time and again that even this small amount of funding, combined with expert mentoring, can be hugely beneficial to a project — even for established organizations.

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The Participatory Budgeting Project is a well-established, national organization that wanted to create an innovative solution to helping their budget delegates make data-informed decisions specifically around equity in under-resourced communities. Every year, local governments across the US set aside discretionary funds for residents to vote on local initiatives that improve their neighborhood. Residents submit their ideas to a participatory budgeting steering committee that coordinates getting the ideas to a group of budget delegates who then select the community projects that will go to the general public for a vote.

Except budget delegates usually have to make these decisions with little information about what a neighborhood really needs. Imagine trying to determine if you should select a project for new traffic lights or a community garden for a neighborhood without knowing anything about pedestrian safety in the area, or how many community gardens already exist? How would you know which neighborhoods have a greater need for resources and community projects?

PBP wanted to create a solution that would give the budget delegates the data they required to make need-based, informed decisions on what would most benefit the health of a community. This small grant gave them the room to experiment and create a minimal viable product (MVP) that has potential to help under-resourced communities access a significant amount of funding. This allowed them to experiment on a much larger project without dipping into their very stretched organizational budget.

Challenging Assumptions

Their process was greatly assisted by their mentors and Civic Hall Lab’s human-centered design process (both of which we’ll explore in more detail in upcoming posts). Each helped the team learn insights about their end users and the context in which they are making decisions that they wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.

For example, PBP thought the main problem would be gathering important data to present to the budget delegates for their decision-making; instead, the issue was that the budget delegates didn’t know how to use the data to make an equity-based decision. The sentiment was best summed up by the most common question they received after handing over the data:

“So…what do you want me to do now?”

This feedback forced PBP to expand their thinking and figure out a user-friendly system for synthesizing and visualizing the most important data. Not only that, but they realized they were going to have to train themselves to interpret it before they had any hope of training others. Now, with a much more refined, user-tested product, they are going to train the Greensboro council as their first test-run.

In the end, the grant money gave PBP the chance to take a risk on a new innovation, and in doing so, they discovered that the problem they were trying to solve was different than their initial assumption. Through the use of expert mentorship and human-centered design, they managed to drastically improve their product, strengthen their processes, and create a scalable solution.

If you’re interested in keeping track of PBP, visit them on their website or catch up on their blog. 

In the next post, we’ll discuss more about the importance of mentorship in civic innovation.