School of Public Policy Capstones

Sustaining Public Sector Innovation in Boston City Government: Making Innovation the Work of City Government and the Case of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics

Michael Sedelmeyer, University of Massachusetts - Amherst


Evidence indicates that public sector organizations benefit from engaging in innovation activities as a means for improving both operational efficiency and the quality of services they provide. These innovation activities can be thought of as the process by which a government organization explicitly links a new idea to a practical application in its operations or services. However, barriers exist that often prevent public sector organizations from innovating on a regular and sustained basis. Some such barriers include public ambivalence toward the government’s role as innovator as well as conditions wherein unsuccessful innovations are typically punished more severely than successful innovations are reward. Taken together, these barriers conspire against public managers’ willingness to engage in innovation activities. The City of Boston has recently attracted positive attention for its creation of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM). This city office was created to become an institutionalized system that encourages and enables sustained innovation activities within Boston city government. Proponents claim that MONUM succeeds in encouraging innovation activities, in part, by “pooling” the risks typically associated with innovation activities undertaken by individual public managers and by acting as an “incubator” for new city services and technologies. This study seeks to answer the questions: (1) “How has the City of Boston succeeded in making innovation an acceptable objective of its municipal government?” and (2) “What strategies has it used to encourage sustained innovation after legitimizing that objective?”