In the eight years I have collaborated with the Alliance for Innovation, I have lost count of how many times I have had the “what is innovation?” conversation with fellow members and colleagues from dozens of city and county organizations. We have established that innovation can come in big and small packages, be high-tech or low-tech, and range from truly groundbreaking to a simple process improvement that is new to one jurisdiction. Innovation can manifest as a finite exciting new project, or the gradual pace of a comprehensive cultural shift.
Depending on who you ask and what they are working on, the goal of innovation might be to save money, to improve the speed of responsiveness, to enhance safety, or myriad other metrics. These are all admirable values, and measurement is crucial to achieving improvement. However, I do not think we talk out loud enough in local government about what, or more importantly who, innovation is for. Our ultimate calling in local government is to be stewards of public trust and resources who consistently leverage them to attain the elusive ideals of democracy. Every single person deserves a government that serves them. As we drive change in our organizations we must consistently question whether our innovation is truly making government more just, equitable, and accessible.
The city of Boulder has taken this challenge very seriously. As we strive to innovate, we do so with an eye toward dismantling institutionalized inequity. In 2019, three examples of innovation in Boulder model this commitment to democracy.
Police Department Oversight
Following a confrontation between Boulder police officers and a local black college student picking up trash in front of his own residence on March 1st, 2019 that garnered national attention, members of our community demanded police oversight reform. Rather than shy away from conflict, city leaders responded with immediate action to pursue the change our community asked for. Instead of taking a traditional staff-driven approach to this work, the city engaged the community to develop a more innovative and inclusive approach. With community input, city council established the Police Oversight Task Force to research models of civilian oversight and develop a recommended structure for adoption. The city partnered with representatives from the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter to ensure the selection of task force members upheld the community’s desire to see diverse representation. The 13 members selected, a majority of whom are people of color, collectively invested more than 1000 hours in the span of just 5 months to research, deliberate, and determine a recommended structure. Members were provided a stipend for their work, and the group was facilitated by an independent consultant.
On Oct. 29, 2019, City Council gave unanimous final approval to recommendations from the Police Oversight Task Force. The new structure for oversight will enable creation of a Police Auditor position in the city manager’s office along with a new police oversight panel of community members reporting outside of the police department to review internal investigations. As we transition to implementation of the recommendations, volunteers from the task force are continuing to partner with city manager’s office and police department staff to ensure change is lasting and successful.
Boulder staff recognize that traditional forms of community engagement often fail to reach our entire community. In 2018, we began to employ a Community Connector model to aid in our efforts for more inclusive engagement. Community Connectors are Boulder residents – natural relationship builders who are trusted within their own neighborhoods and communities - who partner with the city to create and support engagement activities. Effective Community Connectors engage underrepresented communities, bridge cultural and language barriers, and co-design effective engagement opportunities and activities with city staff. They are motivated by a desire to strengthen the relationship between residents and the city, to the benefit of both. The city provides a stipend to those Community Connectors who partner with us.
Early projects benefitting from this model have had impact on many city efforts including transportation, a bilingual text messaging platform, and subcommunity planning. While Community Connectors are often employed for key priority projects, we recognize the best relationships are two way, and the city must be open not just to receiving input about its top agenda items but also to respond to ideas that roll up from these communities through the connectors.
Reflecting on his experience, one of our Community Connectors Jesús says, “People in my community want to get involved, but don’t know how. Being a community connector is empowering and makes me feel like we have a voice. It’s a way to bring topics to life and share my experience. I see it as a way to represent my community and set an example for our people, and young people, to be involved.”
Boulder Public Library Bathroom Renovation
Innovation can even find its way to an unlikely place—public restrooms! In December 2019, the Boulder Public Main Library opened renovated bathrooms that follow state-of-the-art design for inclusiveness. The new restrooms provide patrons with the option to choose the restroom that best suits their needs. The design of both the gender-specific and all-gender restrooms respond to requests from community members to provide restroom facilities that are safe and welcoming for any person, so no one feels excluded, discriminated-against, or unsafe using the public restrooms at the library.
Colorful murals welcome patrons into the spacious restrooms. The finishes, fixtures and lighting were selected to create an open, clean and welcoming atmosphere. To ensure privacy and comfort of all users, the restrooms for all feature individual, room-like, stalls with floor-to-ceiling walls. The door to each has a four-inch gap between the bottom of the door and the floor for security purposes. Each stall has its own ventilation and sound mitigation. The sinks, hand-dryers, towel dispensers and trash are in a common area. A diaper-changing area with a sink is available to the side of the common area.
This level of investment into infrastructure that we tend to take for granted sends a clear message to the community that everyone deserves to benefit from public spaces that respect who they are.