Tracy Colunga has focused her career around community improvement, and after holding several positions with the City of Long Beach in the past 12 years, today she serves as the Innovation Team Director for the city. The Innovation Team is situated within the city manager’s office, and while it has historically been funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, these days the department is reinventing itself as the Office of Civic Innovation, and will expand its operations beyond the Bloomberg grant. Moving from a grant-funded methodology to a department investment shows Long Beach’s investment in a systematic approach to innovation from within the city.
Tracy’s career path zigzagged between the public sector and the non-profit sector, but in the end she found the greater stability she was seeking in local government, as a city employee. Her many years of experience come as a great benefit in her current role, where she needs the trust of her fellow employees from other departments; “we’re going to try new things but we’ll make sure everybody lands on their feet”.
Tracy mentioned two factors that work to the benefit of cities over states. The first, is proximity: “We’re here, we’re local. There is a greater dialog between citizens and local government by virtue of city employees being able to participate in community conversations.” The second thing is the ability to actually see the change happening in the city. “There are visible changes happening right in from of our eyes, fairly quickly. We experience it real-time, we get to see it right in front of us.”
“An innovation department would be too cliché - we’re not going to do that!” Tracy laughs. Instead, she thinks up two departments:
“Oh my Gosh. Smart Cities! Smart Cities! There’s no real definition that everybody’s gotten behind. It’s such a misnomer. It can be the ‘Internet of Things’ but it can also be ‘Design Principles’. It’s all over the place. When someone says ‘Smart Cities’, something different comes to everybody’s mind. When you’re defining yourself as a smart city, what does that mean? Are we working smarter? Are we using technology? Are we using human power? I feel like smart cities is the buzzword right not, it’s a little overkill. Can we either define it and use it right, or not use it at all?”
“Honestly, I love both. Simultaneously. For example, we’re going to help the police department reinvent their police recruitment, a 12-18 month engagement that will have immediate results. But at the same time I’m already thinking, if we can help police figure out how to reinvent their recruitment, maybe we can help the other city departments through HR. It can be our proof-of-concept in one department, and then we can help the city as a whole rethink how we do our hiring and recruitment process so that we’re recruiting a diverse workforce with different skill sets, ethnic groups, gender identities, spoken languages, making sure we’re helping the young people of Long Beach to see the city as a potential employer. We’re problem solving, but also thinking of how to use this for long term planning down the road. Some of my projects are short term in nature, but I’m constantly thinking of the long-term impact they can have on shifting and improving the culture of our city.”
“‘How could we serve you better?’ That would be my question. I don’t know what the answer would be, but I have a hunch that it would be different depending on the demographic we’ll ask. It’s such an open ended question, whether you’re 5, 15, 25, 35, 45, 55 or 75, and depending on your ethnic background, your economic background, your gender status, we will get so many different responses, but we will have enough themes emerge that we could start developing creative community engagement strategies that are really meaningful for the entire population. My dream would be that 5-10 years down the road, people will say ‘the city of Long Beach serves us well. They treat their residents right.’ It’s such a bummer for me to hear about what we didn’t do right, so to ask “how can we serve you well”, and then to get all that feedback and incorporate it so that people will say that the city of Long Beach cares about the residents and is responsive, that would make my heart happy. So there you go.”
*** Stay tuned for more interviews with local government executives. Want to be featured in this series? Get in touch with Mai Amit at firstname.lastname@example.org ***