Transforming Organizational Culture: A guide for cities

Jun. 14, 2022

Neil Kleiman

To move the needle on any community challenge, whether it be diabetes, affordable housing, healthy food access, or opioid use disorder, municipal leaders must enact some combination of policy change and program implementation. These efforts break down to the what and the how.

The What and the How

The what is the problem you are trying to solve – where to focus your energy and what you want to accomplish. This is where the City Health Dashboard comes in. The Dashboard helps to not only identify what urban health issues may be impacting a locality but also where to focus scarce, municipal resources so they have the greatest impact on the communities who need them most.

The how is the actual work that goes into effectively executing on an ambitious policy or programmatic goal. It is much trickier and unfortunately garners far less attention than ‘the what.’ It often means considerable internal work aligning departments, building data aptitude and enthusiasm amongst frontline workers – or the culture of your city government. Your organizational approach to innovation and collaboration is key to getting things done.

 The private sector knows this full well. There are dozens of magazines—Fast Company, Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes to name just a few—dedicated to business culture strategies. And, entire business libraries focused on culture. When thinking of companies, many think of the warm, fuzzy customer service orientation of a Disney or a distribution, hierarchical company like Amazon. But the truth is civic organizations and departments have cultures too.

Addressing Organizational Culture in Cities

To address this in cities, I along with fellow NYU professor, Alexander Shermansong issued a first-of-its-kind guide to transforming organizational culture. This newly issued culture guide was specifically developed to help municipal leaders facilitate innovative reform. It spells out in clear detail how to diagnose an organization’s culture and what steps to take to transform it. While a full-scale transformation may take many years, it is possible to incorporate some of the steps in the guide to assist with health-oriented reform efforts right now.

Harvard Report

Here are two of the most important steps to get your organization, team or department positioned to advance new approaches and drive change.

  • Step One: Get your leadership team to talk about vision and values. This means clarifying your approach to culture—whether it be more collaborative or transparent—and consistently using language that reflects those values.

  • Step Two: Designate someone to design and coordinate the internal cultural changes. We call this individual an ecosystem engineer. This is someone who drafts projects plans and ensures that the new approach is advancing.

Now let’s apply this approach to city challenges related to the built environment - challenges that often span multiple departments or expertise. We can use the Dashboard’s limited access to healthy foods and park access measures as our guide.

Using the Culture Guide in Your Community 

Let’s assume you’ve used the City Health Dashboard to help identify the ‘what’ in your community: a new prioritized effort by the local public health department to improve public use of parks and utilization of fresh food markets.

The ‘how’ will be shifting departmental orientation from working internally—in an insular manner—to intentionally collaborating with other departments (Parks and Rec), community groups (to understand the demand and use of services) and businesses (small grocery vendors and farmers markets) to achieve the city’s goals for improving access to parks and healthy foods. This will demand a more outward-facing and collaborative approach to work and work processes – a shift for this local health department.

Step One entails identifying the right departmental leadership focused on data and collaborative approaches. Next, internal team meetings should be set to identify the right framework, language and phrases needed to convey this more collaborative approach to work.

Step Two involves identifying a single administrative team member to monitor progress on the new effort, to consistently track and communicate progress. Having a single accountable leader doesn’t mean they do the work alone, but is critical to progressing a collaborative agenda. The City Health Dashboard or a similar data-oriented framework can help align players and establish a shared language between diverse stakeholders, empowering them to work together to understand community challenges and find solutions grounded in data.

This is just one example, but provides a concrete sense of how the new culture guide can be used to assist public health reforms in your local community. You can read the full guide here and if you have any questions about how to implement the recommendations in your city, do not hesitate to reach out.

Neil Kleiman is the Co-PI of the City Health Dashboard, guiding city policy and partnerships, and whose 25 year career has spanned the intersection of policy, philanthropy, government and academia. He has a joint appointment at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service and the Center for Urban Science + Progress, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate-level courses on policy formation, urban innovation, and new approaches to managing technology and big data.

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