Chelsea Schneider, Municipal Innovations Specialist, Aim
This year, the city of Bloomington welcomed its first innovation director. Tom Miller, an Indiana University graduate, has a background in political consulting and owns a video production business based in New York City.
Now, Miller is bringing his talents back to Indiana to build on Mayor John Hamilton’s goal of Bloomington being an innovative, forward-thinking city.
Q: What is the main goal of the position?
A: There are a couple ways to think about the innovation director position, but with these innovation jobs, it’s a catchall of a lot of different things. There’s sort of a data scientist element, an entrepreneurial element and a creative placemaking element. It covers all these different fields. The job is to help city government be more innovative. That takes a lot of different forms. It’s not one thing. If you are a police chief, you are in charge of the police department. You think about all the different departments, but the main focus is how they interface with the police department. The mission of the innovation job is totally random. Right now, we’re building a web tool to help make easier regulations in starting a business here in town. We’re also working on an automated transcript of city meetings, and we’re trying to figure out ways for people to stop parking their cars on the street during street sweeper days.
You are focused on the outcome, like the end of the road. What is our goal here? And you are less worried about how do you get there. I think of myself as extra brainpower or reinforcement that comes in when you’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t lend itself to get solved super easily. There’s a misperception that these positions are really technology focused. Technology is certainly a part of it. But when I interviewed for this job, I made a point that my granddad was a GI in Korea, and he grew up on a farm in rural Illinois. They would fix tanks with duct tape. That’s pretty innovative. The spirit of the job is being clever and using your resources efficiently and trying to think outside of the box when it comes to the different facets of government.
Q: When you came on board, what were your first steps in strengthening the city’s focus on innovation?
A: The big thing is to try to get this culture that you can try and fail and learn from it and move on. I started an innovation team. They meet with me, and we tackle projects. I did a bunch of face-to-face time with departments and met with a lot of people and tried to get a feel of who was out there and who wanted to try different things and wanted to experiment.
Government is inherently conservative when it comes to risk. You don’t want to lose taxpayer money. Within my business, we make tactical risks all the time when we’re making decisions on where to spend money. You need to get people comfortable with – you tried something and there’s nothing wrong with that. If it doesn’t work then you learn from it and move on, and if it does work, that’s great. And you need to increase peoples’ tolerance with taking on ideas that’s outside of their scope.
Q: Describe your typical day.
A: I try not to sit behind my desk too much. I try to be out with people, being on the ground and seeing how things work. I report directly to the mayor, and I’m housed in the office of the mayor. I spend a lot of time with them and being in sync on his priorities and what he’s trying to accomplish.
Last week, I went to the animal shelter for an hour and a half to do a project on mapping where we have animal incidents and to figure out where we need to deploy our trucks, perhaps starting at fire stations instead of one shelter. I really try hard to not be in this office too much. I try to be actually out and in the world and in the city to really experience how people use it. I ditched my car this summer and am just biking everywhere to get a real first-hand experience on how our bike and pedestrian infrastructure works.
Q: What types of projects are coming out of your department?
A: The hardest part of building the business portal was process mapping and figuring out all the different regulations. It was really informative for us as a government to know how all these pieces interact. In Bloomington, we are a more liberal community than a lot of places in Indiana. We’re very protective of our environment and downtown aesthetics. Often times, business owners are more frustrated at the process of navigating all that stuff than they were at the specific regulation. There is work for us to do here. We want to have those conversations about environmental regulations or business requirements that’s what the community elects people to sort out. But there isn’t an environmental or regulatory benefit to being difficult or confusing.
I also did an app challenge here, instead of doing a hack-a-thon. My wife pays for bus tickets, and they don’t accept credit cards. You have to pay in cash. My wife being a millennial never has cash. So we talked to folks at our Bloomington Transit Department. Why don’t we have credit cards? The answer was there’s not a strong economic incentive to spend a lot of money on electronic fair collection. What we did is problem solved our way through how someone could use their phone to do it. Portland has TriMet where they made an app where you can buy tickets and the ticket is on your phone with a moving image and time stamp. So we challenged people. Can you develop something like TriMet, and help us make it so people can get on the bus without cash and not require Bloomington Transit to install infrastructure? We’re going to Beta test it in the fall and look at how Bloomington Transit could move to a system like that.
Q: As more cities think innovatively, what are some tips and suggestions for guiding and capitalizing on that process?
A: Try to break down barriers between the administration and the public. We know for a fact here in Bloomington there’s a lot of talented people who are willing to donate their time. I think good governance is a two-way street. It’s a two-way activity. Do not think of it as just being internal.
Another important think about innovation. You got to figure out how to handle insubordination and passion. Governments are really hierarchical, so you might have a rank-and-file person who is really persistent that they have this idea. What the innovation officer can do is capture the idea and figure out how it works. Maybe it’s outside the normal structure. You have to get people to understand that’s OK. It’s OK for staff and folks to feel like their ideas should be shared, and it’s not undermining the authority of their boss. It’s really important to have a safe space where people can share their ideas and throw things out there. It’s not just me sitting in an office thinking about stuff. It’s a misnomer for an innovation director to be expected to turn out magic. I have an innovation drop box and anyone can join the innovation team.