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Podcast: Innovation and Combating Poverty in Rochester, NY with Henry Fitts and Kate May

Posted on June 26, 2020


Rochester GovLove Henry Fitts Kate May
Henry FittsKate May
Henry Fitts
Grant Management & Research Coordinator
Former Director of Innovation
City of Rochester, New York
LinkedIn | Twitter
Kate May
Chief Performance Officer
City of Rochester, New York
LinkedIn | Twitter

Understanding the drivers of poverty. Two members of the Office of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives joined the podcast to talk about their work addressing poverty and working with departments to use data. Henry Fitts is the Grant Management and Research Coordinator and former Director of Innovation and Kate May is the City’s Chief Performance Officer. They discussed the City’s work in helping residents find employment and testing a micro loan program for entrepreneurs.

Host: Ben Kittelson

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Learn More

Rochester Office of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives

Meet the Rochester Innovation Team

Using innovation to advance economic mobility

Rochester gets help from foundations to try and increase economic stability for its citizens

Partner Spotlight: Henry Fitts from the City of Rochester, NY on designing and implementing the Bridges to Success program evaluation


Episode Transcript

Message

Hey GovLove listeners, Ben here. We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in the plans for all the graduate students out there that were looking for summer internships. Well, ELGL wants to help. We’ve partnered with the Government Finance Officers Association or GFOA to host a PAFR Fellowship Program. What’s a PAFR? A PAFR is a Popular Annual Financial Report. And it’s personally one of my favorite documents because it combines financial analysis with communications. The goal of the PAFR is to make government finances understandable to the public. This fellowship program will pair graduate students and local governments to create a PAFR and submit it for the coveted GFOA award. ELGL and GFOA will work together to match up graduate students with local governments and then support the students as they create a PAFR document. The way to participate is for if you’re interested in, if you’re a graduate student interested in an internship, you should go to the ELGL website and apply and if you’re a local government interested in hosting an intern and improving your PAFR, you also need to apply as well. This is a great experience for all you graduates out there. And it’s a huge assist for local governments that are interested in either creating for the first time or improving their PAFR. So that’s a, you can  find out more by going to the ELGL website or go to elgl.org. To find out more that’s elgl dot org. Thanks.

Ben Kittelson

This is GovLove, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittelson, consultant at the Novak Consulting Group and GovLove co host. We’ve got a great episode for you today. We’re going up to Rochester, New York to talk innovation. Before we get into today’s episode, I do want to remind our GovLove audience that the ELGL annual conference is going digital. Details will be announced soon. But we are spreading out the conference over a full week, October 12 – 16th to avoid that Zoom burnout. It’s gonna be the same great and awesome agenda, just digitally. You can go to the ELGL website to find out more. That’s elgl.org. As a reminder, if you want to support GovLove, you should become an ELGL member. ELGL is a professional association, engaging the brightest minds in local government. GovLove is also looking for your feedback. You can visit govlovesurvey.com and tell us a little bit about you and what you think about GovLove. Knowing more about you helps us make GovLove better. That’s govlovesurvey.com. Now let me introduce today’s guests. First we got Henry Fitts. He’s the Director of Innovation and leads the Mayor’s Office of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives for the City of Rochester. He’s been in that role since 2015. And before working in the Innovation office, Henry got to start in the city’s Department of Neighborhood and Business Development. And then our second guest, Kate May is the Chief Performance Officer for the City of Rochester, a role she’s been in since 2018. And prior to that she worked for the City and County of Denver as a Data Scientist. She helps departments use their data to drive evidence based decisions and increase operational efficiency. So with that, welcome to GovLove. Thank you both for joining us.

Kate May

Thanks for having us.

Henry Fitts

Yeah, good morning.

Ben Kittelson

Morning. Cool. So we’ve got a tradition on GovLove that, to help our audience get to know our guests a little better. We’ve got a short lightning round. So these are, you know, less serious questions to kind of give an insight into our guests. So, Henry, why don’t we start with you. My first lightning round question, what book are you currently reading?

Henry Fitts

Well, Kate’s leading a book club, …… also folks across the city. So we’re reading Switch by Chip and Dan Heath right now. And I’m also reading a book on mushroom foraging because you never know what skills you might need in the, in the next few months here.

Kate May

That’s awesome, Henry. I just finished the Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis which is especially enlightening right now. I recommend everybody read that one and currently started Medallion Status by John Hodgman, which is a lot lighter.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, Awesome. Yeah, I need to add the Fifth Risk to my list. That’s a that’s that looks really interesting. So on the theme of, kind of, we’re all of us working from home. Is there anything that you’re watching or binging right now? Kate, why don’t you start?

Kate May

Yeah, I’m a huge fan of Babylon Berlin, on Netflix, which takes place in Germany. The current season is just right after the fall of the markets, but the first season takes place between the wars and is really interesting look at a fictional story but set in historical time period.

Henry Fitts

I’m watching with my wife, we love Love Island. It’s a reality TV show coming from Britain and Australia, and it’s really great. There’s about 50 hours of content per season because it’s a lot less over produced like the American reality TV shows. They just let them let them go. Let them go in the wild and just film.

Ben Kittelson

Oh, my wife and I tore through Love is Blind over the weekend.

Henry Fitts

Oh, yeah.

Ben Kittelson

[Laughter] Yeah, there’s some good reality TV watching going on right now I imagine.

Henry Fitts

That’s right.

Ben Kittelson

All right. And Henry we’ll let you start for the last lightning round question. Where do you go for inspiration?

Henry Fitts

Well, I think I do a lot of Twitter following. I follow a lot of different stuff. So I keep, keep watching on there and you usually see a lot of cool stuff through that. And then, honestly, Kate, Kate brings a lot to our team and helps connect us to resources. So I’m really appreciative of her, her work in that capacity.

Kate May

I like to look at the newsletters from What Works Cities collective, and I get a lot of interesting ideas from their experiments in other cities. And if I want a lot of specific advice on things, I tend to go to my old colleague from Denver, Melissa Wiley, who always has both sage wisdom and also a positive spin on even the bleakest of situation. So I always appreciate what she can, what she can provide.

Ben Kittelson

Nice. Awesome. Well, one of my, one of the things I always want to ask guests on, on GovLove when I have them is, how they ended up in local government because I think it’s always interesting to hear people’s paths and sometimes the, the twisting way they end up where they are. So Kate, why don’t we start with you? How did you end up in local government and in this field and in the City of Rochester?

Kate May

Sure. Originally, I was planning on being a Hydrologist back in college. And then I was in college during the Great Recession when those markets collapsed. I looked around and said, well, what else is there to do? A lot of the jobs in environmental sciences were at that point, when a lot of the jobs vanished, it was all extraction and wasn’t super interested in the energy field. So got really interested in some of my electives. At the time, public finance was one of those, and just the thought of how you can try to quantify the impacts on people’s lives and also on society, of making these sometimes really small policy changes, and sometimes things that seem trivial, end up having huge, positive and sometimes unexpected negative consequences. So a few years later, I went to grad school for data and policy analysis. And when I was there, I thought, I really thought I would go into the federal government, which is what the program I went to a lot of the people ended up either in consulting or the federal bureaus, but in the classes it seemed like almost all the practical experiments that were being done, were being done at the local level instead. And I noticed that old Brandeis quote, you know, states are the laboratories for experiments. But that didn’t really seem to be true at that, at that point. And I thought, you know, I wanted to experiment with a lot of interesting and practical things. So it seemed like local government was the right place to be.

Ben Kittelson

Henry, what about you?

Henry Fitts

Sure. So, mine started back really in high school. I did like my senior economics project on the, you know, the history of Rochester, especially the economy of Rochester. And I’ve always been sort of fascinated with our history, especially in the industrial phase, when we’re really leading the country in innovation, and we’re one of the wealthiest cities in the country per capita. You can see a lot of the bones of that still around, but then you know, through the 80s and 90s major decline and, and you know, we’re still suffering with that today although starting to rebound. So that kind of I’ve always been fascinated by Rochester and especially going away to college, I kind of re-realized my love for Rochester. And I did a very urban focused education at Trinity College. We had a Center for Urban Global Studies that I worked out of and I was a graduate or excuse me, teacher’s assistant and researcher for the head of the center there Xiangming Chen. So yeah, it’s always been an urban interest for me. And during my studies there, I also had the opportunity to intern at City Hall in the economic development department, and that kind of got my foot in the door and I started working right after graduating in that department and kind of worked my way up the chain and then was lucky enough to be part of the founding of the Office of Innovation. So it’s been quite a great little career so far at City of Rochester and in local government.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. Was there a, again something you got to work on in that first, like internship or Henry or Kate you know, after entering the field post grad school that like made you go, this is the career, like being in local government. And this is, this is like what I want to do and I want to stick with this.

Kate May

For me, my favorite projects that really made me certain that this was where I wanted to be was when I was in Denver working with our forestry team on a data project. The Emerald Ash Borer beetle was just approaching the Denver area that it had been discovered in Boulder, and that was a big threat to the urban tree canopy there. And we had an inventory of all of the city owned trees on city property but the Ash pre population on private property was something that we had to estimate, you know, how many are there? And given the total supply of trees and the propagation that we expected in the climate with these bugs, how quickly was it going to eat through the tree stock? And we were doing a flatten the curve sort of experiment, exercise there. Because when, when the Beatles eat through the trees, they get really brittle and we had decent amount of snow in Denver. So the whole thought was, how can we make a strategy to inoculate a certain number of trees for a certain number of years to manage the death curve, while the tree services could monitor and remove things proactively and also reactively in a way that would help prevent public safety problems working on a challenge that complex with, with data but also real implications for people’s lives and property. It was, it was just a neat application of the things that we learned in school and seeing it actually happen was great.

Henry Fitts

For me, I guess I did some early work on evaluating foreclosures, subsequent foreclosures of homes that had been vacant properties turned back into owner occupancy through rehab and to see are they getting foreclosed on again? That was kind of one of my early projects coming on board and also doing a lot with GIS mapping of property data to help the department look at trends and neighborhood distress factors.

Ben Kittelson

Very cool. Was the foreclosure happening again? Or were those homes able to stay?

Henry Fitts

A very small percentage, thankfully, yeah. It was, it was a successful program.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. Well, those are fun first projects. That’s great. So I mean, I wanted to have you guys both on to talk about your awesome innovation work and some of the programs that you have going on in Rochester. So Henry, you mentioned at the top that you were there at the inception of the Office of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives. So can you tell our listeners a little about how that work began and what led to the creation of the office?

Henry Fitts

Sure. So we were fortunate to learn of this grant opportunity through Bloomberg Philanthropies, their Innovation Teams Grant Program, which, you know, they essentially helped kick start this movement of innovation teams across the country and now across the world, kind of in the vision of Mayor Bloomberg, and some of the work they did in New York City. So, essentially, the model is that it’s a team, a specialized team reporting to the mayor that can be nimble, that can work across departments to solve problems quickly and assist on key priority projects of the mayor. So we applied for the grant and we were fortunately successful. That time I was working in the commissioner’s office in Neighborhood and Business Development. And we then created the team and moved into the mayor’s office. In our initial work, we focused on anti poverty issues, because that’s a huge issue we’re dealing with as a city. We’re in the top five poor cities in the country. And I believe number one for child poverty. So it’s, that was a big focus. So we looked at first doing a scan of the issues, help and get a better understanding. That’s kind of one big piece of that the methodology that the program pushes is make sure you truly understand the problem before we even start to think about solutions. Otherwise, you may be blinded by shiny, cool objects, but not they may not actually solve the problem. So a lot of analysis and mapping and looking at the issues. And then we’re working with a large community coalition that is still doing great work today called the Rochester Monroe Anti Poverty Initiative, which really has everybody, all the nonprofit’s, academics and even the business community at the table to work on this issue collectively across the community. So kind of under that umbrella and supporting their work with data, we’ve helped launch a few different pilot programs to prove effectiveness and help to scale some of those up. And yeah, it’s been good work. And now, you know, I think as we’re starting to shift now more in more and more internally, looking at City Hall operations.

Ben Kittelson

Before like, you guys applied for the grant or got the grant was any of that kind of innovation or work on innovation work or work on poverty happening at the city or was it really the impetus of the grant that led to any of that work happens like starting?

Henry Fitts

Yeah, really before that there was nothing like that happening. And we were very siloed organization. You know, each department kind of very specifically doing their own thing, owning their own data, not sharing data. Honestly, a lot of status quo. So I, I really give the mayor a lot of credit to really helping position us for success and embracing a lot of the work that we’ve been doing. And I think it’s really influenced her leadership style as well.

Ben Kittelson

Cool. And Kate, before we kind of dive into the, the work on poverty in some of the programs you guys have, like the data work you have done, I think it’s really interesting and like, there’s not a lot of cities that have a data scientist, like you were in Denver. And so, kind of your work in Rochester, so can you maybe share a couple of examples of how you’re helping departments use data better?

Kate May

Sure, so in Rochester we are starting a little bit farther back toward the left of the data maturity spectrum. In Denver, we had a lot of data really readily accessible because we’d already modernized most of our data systems, not all but a lot of them. In Rochester, we are starting with a lot of departments on mainframe systems. And they’re there, because their infrastructure is farther behind. It’s just harder to access things. And so a lot of the work that we’re doing right now is setting up a lot of the systems or a lot of data sets to be put into modern systems once we can get the budget and capacity to put those in. So we’re trying to figure out within the mainframe systems of all of this data that we’ve essentially been hoarding for decades, a lot of its transactional, figuring out what is actually important within that and doing a lot of text mining, and trying to figure out you know, we’ve got some departments that have, in sort of treating it like treating the data systems like a professional chat room, like it’s like a long term Slack channel where inspectors will go into a series of buildings and they’ll record information that that’s important operationally to the next person who might inspect it or to themselves in the future. But it’s just a lot of free text, you know, narrative and so mining that to be able to make that into more datasets that are more suited for analytical purposes. That’s one of the things that we’re working on right now. And so a lot of it’s just this deeply unsexy work of janitorial sizes to make it so that once we are in position to be modernized across the different departments that we’ll hopefully have a more accessible, safe, clean, reliable set of practices and data sets. That’s, that’s a lot of the work that we’re doing is not the predictive sexy stuff that we were starting to do in Denver, but really making sure that once we’re in that place, that our results will be good.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. What’s it like ….

Henry Fitts

Yeah, let me…

Ben Kittelson

Go ahead, go ahead Henry.

Henry Fitts

I just wanted to weigh in quickly to on this point about, like, smart cities initiatives, and there’s so much out there and so many, so many organizations trying to push into, you know, smart, and IoT and analytics. And the vast majority of small and mid sized cities are really still, I think people need to understand they’re still at this point of really just still modernizing. They, so many are still on ancient data systems that don’t have the ability to do any fancy analytics. And I wish that more of the, you know, national and state and philanthropic leaders kind of could come to terms of that. And really because I think a lot of the resources right now are in that smart space where we, some cities still need to crawl before they can walk, before they can run.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, well to your point you’re not going to get in the paper because you’re fixing the data infrastructure right like it’s doing those slick Smart City things that it gets the attention. But what’s it like to get department buy in around doing some of these basics you know, blocking and tackling of, of the data work that’s not yeah, it’s not sexy. And it’s hard and ,it’s difficult I’d imagine. Like what, how do you get departments to buy into the kind of that the basic stuff that they you know, they’re not going to get a bunch of credit for because you know, they’ve modernized their, their data infrastructure?

Kate May

Oh, my dog is freaking out upstairs. I’m sorry. It’s right now we’re at we’re at a point where a lot of our staff in the departments, as long as you’ll do it for them, and they just need to interact with you a little bit they’re, I think partially just kind of like, well, if it works great, if it doesn’t, we’re no worse off. So a big part of this work is just making sure that when you do the requirements gathering and the upfront costs to the department leaders that you’re taking as little of their time as you can and getting as much out of those sessions as possible so that it’s not a burden to them. So as long as the cost benefit is at least you know, breaking even there, the buy in usually isn’t that, isn’t that tough to get.

Ben Kittelson

Well, that’s good. So kind of switching gears back to your work on, on poverty. So this is one of those like big hairy problems that a lot of you know cities have. And, and I know like from my time at the City of Durham when we had the Bloomberg I team grant like, you get to pick one of these big wicked issues and kind of let the team run off and research it. Henry, well like what, what went into, like, you know, choosing poverty and then figuring out, you know, in this enormous like problem that could probably be approached, you know, a 1000 different ways, how did you guys kind of narrow in on the way that y’all were going to approach it in Rochester?

Henry Fitts

Sure. So I think we tried to zero in on kind of the root cause analysis type of approach. And when it comes down to it, poverty is an income issue. It’s households not having enough income to get over the poverty threshold, you know, according to the official definition. So looking at that, from that perspective, you know, where are the income sources? How can we, you know, grow income sources, looking at the labor market, looking at that, especially we did a lot of looking at the location of work and analysis about transportation. And finding that, especially our low wage workers, you know, low wage job opportunities are primarily located out in the suburbs, and very difficult to access for our residents in poverty who are living in the interior of the city. And, you know, 90 minute – two hour commutes, potentially to get to like the mall or these big box stores. So yeah, we did a lot of work on, we ended up focusing in on barriers to employment as a big focus. So yeah, we looked at transportation, we looked at criminal records, we looked at educational attainment, and a lot of that, disability as well, huge factor for our community. So yeah, that and that ended up influencing kind of the direction where we went with some of our pilot programs.

Ben Kittelson

And so the pilot programs, I assume one of them was the mentorship program you guys have on your website. Can you tell our listeners about that?

Henry Fitts

Sure, so it’s called Bridges to Success and it’s a program that is operated by some of our nonprofit partners, Catholic Family Center, Action for a Better Community and Community Place of Greater Rochester. So it is a adult mentorship or life coach program where a head of household is paired with a mentor who works with them to first kind of diagnose where they are in their life, according to a pretty interesting tool that was adapted from EMPath organization in Boston. They kind of have a, this program model that they’ve been helping to, to grow around the country. So basically, they’re pillars for each major area of someone’s life. So, dependents, transportation, job, education, and basically you can be anywhere on the each of those spectrums. So they kind of first go through a session where they will figure out where they are in each of those spectrums and each of those pillars and then make a plan to, with them to where they want to be moving forward, and then help connect them with the services and supports they need to get there. And then they meet with them regularly to check in on progress to see what other supports they need. And kind of the, you know, the intent is that we have a lot of services around this community. We have one of the highest nonprofits per capita, I think in the country. But you know, it’s difficult for somebody in crisis or somebody without a lot of, you know, spare time and capacity to navigate the system on their own. So having, having a support there to help them navigate, advocate for them is helpful. You know, and it basically the program goals are – long term to help improve employment and improve income, reduce use of public benefits, make people self sufficient, and get them out of poverty.

Ben Kittelson

Very cool. And it’s interesting, like, the role in that like, similar to like, you know, some other areas of local government where you’re not necessarily providing a service, but you’re convening and, you know, bringing all resources together and being able to show people where they can find the things that they need. And that’s, that’s a that’s really cool. That’s a really cool approach.

Henry Fitts

Absolutely. One other thing I want to mention is that it’s being evaluated rigorously as a randomized control trial. So we were able to secure some grant funding through the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT, and they’re a international and actually just won a Nobel Prize for their work on anti poverty and evaluation this past year. So they have funding available to help support rigorous evaluations as randomized controlled trials. So we’re working with our academic evaluator team at Notre Dame University lab for economic opportunity, and they’re evaluating the program. So basically, as a, as a randomized control trial when participants come to enroll in the program, they are either randomized into the program to receive services or randomized into the control group, which we follow on an ongoing basis. And by comparing those two groups, you know, we can get a more accurate sense of the impact of the program, and especially in times like right now where we have a recession, potentially, we want to be able to screen out the effects of the recession through that comparison. And hopefully our folks who received services will still be doing comparatively better than the folks who did not.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah and I know, like one of the issues with doing a randomized control in local government is that you’re supposed to be providing, you know, it’s hard to argue for a service that it doesn’t go to everyone. So what was the reception of being like, hey, we’re gonna randomly control some people not to get the full range of services that we could provide and others to get it? Was that like a harder sell and like internally or with elected?

Henry Fitts

Well, the mayor, the mayor was fully on board with it. And she’s been very strongly supporting, making sure our nonprofits are incorporating more evidence based work and evaluation. And it was a little bit more difficult with some of the nonprofit community. But there actually is a lot of experience with randomized control trials already in Rochester. So it wasn’t too hard to sell. I think the message that J Pal tries to send is to say, you know, if you have a scarce resource, like a program like this, it’s actually more fair to do it through randomized enrollment than say, a first come first serve model because people who might have better access to information for one reason or another, might have a better chance at getting into the program. So it’s actually the most fair way to distribute a, a resource, a scarce resource. The other factor too, is that these folks are, you know, even the folks who are not, who we’re putting into the control group, comparison group, they were given a portfolio of services in the community as and pointed especially if they’re presenting a very specific urgent need, were pointed to a service that could help meet that need. So they weren’t kind of said, okay, sorry, we can’t do anything for you. They were connected with services. But the difference is they weren’t given that full concierge navigation service.

Ben Kittelson

Cool. Interesting. And do you guys have like early results on how this experiment is going? Or is that still, the jury’s still out on that.

Henry Fitts

We are waiting. We’ve had some of our initial results come in from Notre Dame and they are quite promising. I don’t want to give the full details. [Laughter] I think we’ll, I think this summer, we’re going to have a really good report to give but definitely we’re seeing statistically significant difference between the groups in terms of employment and earnings. So the program is definitely having an impact. And I think we’ll just see that see that continue to develop, because these are some, some pretty slow developing things, you know, income and employment takes time to really, to grow and to take hold. So we’re, we’re cautiously very excited. And we hope to have more to share soon.

Ben Kittelson

Perfect. So we’ll check back, have you share how it went and how it’s going?

Henry Fitts

Yeah, sounds good.

Ben Kittelson

So one of the other programs I read about was a loan program for small businesses and entrepreneurs. This is, I love this idea. So can you, well, how does that program work and one of the early results from that?

Henry Fitts

Sure, so the Kiva Rochester program, we launched in response to some of the community interest as part of the anti-poverty initiative and supporting entrepreneurship for individuals in the community as well as an alternative path to wealth building and employment. And so we looked around and saw Kiva as a great opportunity. So Kiva is a national nonprofit based in San Francisco and they had operated a loan program, more facing internationally in some developing countries, and, you know, focused on giving micro loans to individuals to, you know, say purchase a cow or purchase equipment for their farm and things like that. So right about the time we were exploring, they were just launching their new North America program where, you know, they wanted to transition to providing loans here in the United States. And basically the, so their platform is a crowdfunding micro loan platform with, they have millions of users online. Each loan may be sourced, you know, they are in $25 increments. So it could be, you know, hundreds of people fundraising for one loan. And that, the way that North America program works is a borrower applies, they get it, they go through an initial screening that looks at some checks. Overall, Kiva tries to remove as many barriers as possible, that can lead to certain groups being excluded and under served in the financial services market. So, you know, you’re not initially completely screened out by a bad credit score. It’s a factor and it may influence how much you can borrow initially, may lower that number. But that is not, you know, no go and that’s very intentional. So initial screening, then they create a profile, where they just they talk about their business and what they want to use the loan for. And before they can go live on the on the public site, they need to do an initial private fundraising phase where they secure loans from their friends and family and potentially, you know, customers who essentially say, I believe in you, I trust you with my loan of $25. And it’s really more about the number of people than the dollar value. It’s about, it’s a, it’s a very intentional mechanism to help confirm that this individual and this business has trust in the community. And they’re not, you know, some random person just trying to get some quick money. So, after they pass that private fundraising phase, they go live, and the whole world can contribute to their loan. And then they have a certain amount of days to fulfill that that phase, and then they immediately can get the loan disbursed. It’s disbursed via PayPal and repaid via PayPal with no fees. And it’s true zero percent interest loan repaid all through PayPal and organized through the Kiva platform. And so yeah, zero percent interest loan, it’s up to three year term, up to $10,000. And our team, what we do is provide additional support services to entrepreneurs. You know, it’s important we importantly help, you know, advertise the program and do a lot of outreach, a lot of grassroots outreach out in the community. We do office hours around the city in different libraries to help make it accessible. And especially, we, you know, we do a lot of technical assistance with potential borrowers as they apply. Make sure their you know, their profile is up to snuff, make sure they have good pictures, make sure they really have a solid plan for what they’re thinking to do with the money. If they really seem like they’re still really early on in their in their thinking on the business, you know, we help connect them with other services to maybe do a business plan or to look at marketing, research, market research and things like that. So a lot, and we’ve helped, really props to our team member Amy Ventura. She’s also helped really galvanize the local entrepreneurship services ecosystem. And that ecosystem is, is operating a lot more collaboratively and functionally, and now all on a shared data platform for referrals, which is, which is really helping things. So yeah, overall, we’ve been really proud of the program. It’s probably one of our best and we are close approaching $500,000 lent total to over 90 businesses and definitely hitting the marks for the under served type of entrepreneurs that we are hoping to reach, I think over 50% are women owned businesses, huge amount are minority owned businesses. And yeah, it’s really cool to see some of these that are really starting to flourish now.

Ben Kittelson

Very cool. Awesome. Are there any other pilots or programs that kind of on this on this theme that you want to share?

Henry Fitts

Sure, I think another one that we launched that hasn’t been as successful, but we still learned a lot of good lessons is a vanpool program. So that pilot was intended to help serve, again, that issue of low wage jobs located in, out in the suburbs, not well served by our public transit system and the bus system. And essentially a vanpool is a, essentially a car pool where all the riders work at the same place of employment. They all contribute a monthly cost for gas and the rental of the vehicle. And one of the employees is the driver of the vehicle and they get to keep the vehicle at their residence when they’re not commuting and use it for some personal use. So we got that up and running. And we’ve had some decent success. I think the main issue is just the nature of low wage work. And for this for this type of a thing to work, you need people who have consistent schedules, you need management really bought in to keeping consistent schedules. When you have people shifting all the time, it just doesn’t work. You need, you need to have a core of at least five plus people to make a van work. So we have had success with especially employment placement agencies and temp agencies, those have really benefited and have enjoyed using the service because they can use it even when they can help be that middleman to help coordinate and even if they are variable schedules, they can still make sure some of their people are using it. But it hasn’t got as much traction as we’d hoped. And you know, I think there’s some lessons learned there.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Kate, is there something you want to add?

Kate May

We’re also running a, another RCT that’s somewhat on pause right now given the COVID situation but through the What Works Cities program, we’re part of the economic mobility cohort and we are doing a trial called ROC your refund which was intended to help low income working family’s use their EITC refund, to bank a lot of it as savings. And the program was going to match a certain percentage of that savings into a sort of protected account that would distribute that money back out to them quarterly. So the goal of that would be to smooth out any volatility in income over time, via that savings that they had. The trick of all of this is that we were doing this all through people getting their taxes prepared through our nonprofit, tax preparer partner, but that partner had to shut down because they can’t just have the people that have the public into the library in mass during this time. So we’ve put that on pause. We’re not sure at this time what’s going to happen with that program, we might just restart it next fall, but that, that is being evaluated as a random randomized control trial. And so far of the sample that we have, there is a major difference between those who are receiving a match and the control group and how much that they willing to put into that savings account. So I think we proved our hypothesis, the match does work. The question is just whether that savings over time can really help people with major observable outcomes. We don’t know that yet. We might not be able to find that out until next year, but it’s an interesting program.

Ben Kittelson

Pretty cool. And you mentioned this, I think maybe at the beginning of our conversation, and I know I read on your website, but y’all are making a transition to focusing more on process improvement in sort of the internal, internal service to the city. And I mean, our I – Team in Durham was making that that similar transition at the end of the grant, what has been then, but what has that been like for y’all to kind of shift gears? I imagine some of your staff have been gotten a lot of,  and joys maybe the wrong word, but a lot of value out of working on like this, this hairy issue of you know, poverty and, you know, you’re probably other departments are like, hey, aren’t those guys the special projects people? Are they coming in here trying to tell me what to do? What is what is the kind of that transition been like and what is, what have you guys kind of seen or what are you working on?

Henry Fitts

Well, I think it’s been, I’ll let Kate, I think probably respond to most of this because she’s been leading the charge in this area. But I think overall, it’s been really important for our team. I think when we were working on anti poverty, a lot of that was very external and didn’t touch anything internal because the city doesn’t, generally does not do any service provision, or anything in the anti poverty space. So we were doing a lot out in the community, building a lot of partnerships, but not building a lot of partnerships internally. And I think, you know, that did not help our reputation. I think, you know, we were seen as this these young kids doing whatever they want, you know, they got their fancy computers. And, you know, that was, that was a little bit of a difficult time for us because, you know, I don’t think we’d really built our reputation internally. So this has been helping. This shift has really been helping in that department. And especially I think we’ve definitely provided value to departments and they are really excited about some of the things we’re bringing to the table at this point. So I think we are squarely now back in the good graces. [Laughter] Kate, I’ll let you speak more to it.

Kate May

Sure. So, I came from Denver, where I was part of the PEAK Academy team and Brian Elms, I don’t know if you’ve talked to him before, but he engineered this really amazing training program designed for local government staff. And the Peak Academy team over the last six or seven years has trained you know, thousands and thousands of people from all across the country. So I was involved in that training program. I was mostly focused on the data support for the interventions that we were doing with the different departments there. When I came to the City of Rochester, and I saw that they were doing mostly poverty alleviation work, but had very little control over a lot of the mechanisms to address poverty, especially because, you know, in Denver, we were a City County, so we had a little bit more access to those levers through the social services programs and just a different sort of economic development strategy. Here we, as a sole city, it’s it just it violated the one of the tenets of Lean which is focused on things within your control. So we took that program from Denver and shortened it because the Denver program is four and a half days and it’s hard with a new program to get people to give you that much of their time before you can really prove that it works. So we do a two day training program for staff. It’s all voluntary. People can come If they want to, we don’t, we definitely don’t force our way through. And we teach people the basics of lean and use the practical examples of successes and challenges from the Denver experience. And staff in the departments so far, really liked the training because the central philosophy of lean is really focusing on the customer, but also on the worker and having people just look at pain points, what’s painful. And if you tell people, I’m going to empower you to think about what’s challenging about your job, and what is challenging for your customer that and then turn this into a feedback loop between more challenges for you and no one likes an unhappy customer. They’re empowered to make their work more pleasant, and also more impactful. And that improves the customer experience and just this work, I’ve been doing this work for years now here and there and I just see that stereotype of the lazy, apathetic bureaucrat, it’s just such a false narrative. You see these people who will spend their free time thinking about how they can make the day better for everybody and putting a lot of passion behind that. It’s just inspiring everyday to see people think of new things and test them out and just having that humility to learn on the job. And I think it’s the it’s the best sort of, the best sort of environment you can work and is when people are all a little vulnerable and interested in improvement.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, well said well said. Has offering that training kind of helped get buy in for you guys to do process improvement and service work as a resource like for your employees, who are not just gonna like ask you to do things. But like, here’s some training we can offer.

Kate May

It definitely helps to get buy in with the front-line. Front line staff are more likely to take the training at the stage. So they see that we will, we’ll listen to their pain and listen to, and we’ll provide them with advice when they ask for it. But we definitely don’t force them or tell them how to do stuff. I think that’s one of the keys to building our relationships with other departments is we can use this training to hear what their challenges are, really find out where the strategic players who are passionate about making change are. And then when we can think of ways to give them support across, you know, the many months of doing this work, finding them resources and hearing those opportunities and making those connections. Middle managers seeing this as an opportunity for staff development, it’s that hasn’t really caught on quite yet. It’s mostly the front line learning about, hey, here’s a chance to actually, you know, think about the things that I’ve been thinking about for years and maybe doing some of them. Pretty cool.

Ben Kittelson

Pretty cool.

Henry Fitts

And I’ll just say, Kate, I think Kate has taught me some valuable lessons about, you know, we shouldn’t be, it’s never a good idea to really try and force things upon people. And especially in local government, there’s already so much bureaucracy and things are already so slow, that it’s, it’s not a good idea. So we try and kind of in Kate’s philosophy is to try and cultivate that culture, try to plant those seeds and, and kind of wait for that to come back and us to just really be more of a facilitator of, of change and these process improvement sessions. And same goes for, you know, even higher level work. We, we tried to wait and receive and see indications that that departments are really committed for to, to doing a project before we fully commit to engaging with them. Otherwise, you know, things can really stall and go nowhere.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, for sure. But I imagine there’s also some pressure where like, changing culture and doing it that way, like takes some time, but at the same time I’d imagine your office needs to show some results or some, you know, some progress. So is there any of that pressure, where like, yeah, the best way to do this would be to, like, slowly change culture over time. But at the same time, we’ve got to find some small wins to be able to continue, you know, showing maybe not the value of the office, but you know, some of the progress and some of the, you know, work products that you guys have.

Henry Fitts

Well, I’ll say, just on a general note, we are very fortunate to have the full support of the mayor and city council in Rochester. We’ve been outside of grant funding for several years now, and have become one of America’s most trusted teams in city hall. So we are fortunately not in the position of having to, you know, be thinking about having to prove our value every day. You know, we do make sure that we have a couple big key projects every year that we can really hang our hat on. But we are afforded some more of that. Probably the mayor, the mayor seems like she’s going to be around for a long time. She’s she won her last election by, by a pretty big margin and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. So I think we have, we are fortunate to have that stability here.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Awesome.

Kate May

Before forming those relationships with the mid and front line level staff throughout the departments, we get naturally brought into lots of projects, probably more than we would like sometimes. So I think we’ve already proven that value. And we’re involved in so many things that we didn’t even, covered here that it’s, I don’t think anyone’s questioning what the office is up to at any given time other than possibly, like, how are they possibly involved in that? So I think we’re safe for now.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, that’s good. Yeah. How can they possibly have enough time to do all those things? [Laughter] So, we’ve talked a ton about some of the ongoing projects you have and a little bit about what you guys are planning. But what else? What’s next? What’s next that you want to share with our listeners that we haven’t already talked about?

Henry Fitts

Kate, I’ll let you take this one.

Kate May

It’s really about furthering on a lot of the strategies that we we’ve got in place. So we’re really committed to achieving the What Works City certification and through the Results for America criteria about what it takes to be an evidence driven government. So we are on track to receiving certification at the lowest level by the end of this year. And that’s pretty exciting. So yeah, it’s about continuing on with those goals and making sure that it’s not just checking boxes, that it’s really how we live with our work. And really just a focus of our office is really gonna be focusing on the data maturity model and figuring out what’s the most efficient and practically effective way to provide value to our analysts across the city to give them support and continue developing them professionally. And what technologies and business process automation tools we can put into place to make their jobs easier, so they have more time to develop and more time to do the more interesting analytical work. And with our, with our leadership, we’re working on improving their key performance indicators. And hopefully, in the future, once the data infrastructure is really built out, having really firm logic models, which I know sound like very academic in nature, but I think it’s really important that that they state what there is, what is their hypothesis for how things work, and then doing the tests and hopefully starting to do what we were doing a lot in Denver, which was randomized control trials wherever possible on a small scale. So testing messaging, testing these hypotheses about just small things within the operation and when things don’t work, then taking the hard work to pivot away and having the humility to say, hey, it wasn’t actually doing what we thought it was, let’s try something different. So I know that’s, it’s all very nonspecific, but that just making that culture and laying down the right sorts of infrastructure through governance and professional development and making those networks is really the hard work of our office that if no one’s taking responsibility for it, it just won’t happen. So that’s sort of the present and the future.

Henry Fitts

And, of note for me is actually, I’m actually going to be transitioning back into the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development. And Kate is going to be stepping up to lead the Office of Innovation. And she’s, you know, extremely well positioned to do so and it’s been really leading, leading a lot of the charge on this internal focus. So I’m going over to basically embed there in the commissioner’s office and continue doing a lot of this similar work, but specific to that department. And because they’re arguably one of our most important and most complex departments. And they are in a big transitional phase right now with getting a new data system for code enforcement and property data. So a big opportunity, also a big project with a lot of risks. So I’ll be participating in that and quite a few other things.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. Well, congrats on the on the transitions and in the coming promotions and changes in titles. And I really appreciate you guys taking the time to share your work. My last question might be the hardest hitting. We have a tradition on GovLove, if you are guests, the two of you and you can either decide as a group or each of you can give an idea. If you could be the GovLove DJ, what song would you pick for our exit music for today’s episode?

Kate May

So, I guess in this COVID-19 era where we’re supposed to stay in, I think the song for the moment is really Courtney Barnett’s “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party”. It says I want to go out, but I want to stay home. And it’s a good song and a good album. So I’d like to have that one.

Henry Fitts

I would say, I’ve been listening to a lot of Thievery Corporation lately.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. Well, I appreciate you guys for taking the time. That ends our episode for today. So thank you so much, Henry and Kate for coming on and talking with me.

Kate May

Thanks.

Henry Fitts

Thanks, Ben. This has been great.

Ben Kittelson

And for our listeners, GovLove is brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. You can reach us online at elgl.org/govlove or on Twitter, at the handle @govlovepodcasts. You can support GovLove by joining ELGL. Membership is just $40 for an individual or $20 for a student. Subscribe to GovLove on your favorite podcast app. Or if you’re already subscribed tell a friend or colleague about this podcast. Help us spread the word that GovLove is the go to place for local government stories. And with that, thank you for listening. This has been GovLove, a podcast about local government.

 


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