Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Lexington's 'big idea' all about citizen engagement

When Mayor Jim Gray decided Lexington should enter Bloomberg Philanthropies' Mayors Challenge competition for innovative ideas to improve cities, he asked local citizens for their suggestions. He was impressed by the response.

More than 7,000 people participated in the process, and 420 ideas were formally submitted. Many of those ideas for improving Lexington were good, even if some didn't fit the Bloomberg criteria.

Then it dawned on Gray and his staff: The "big idea" was the citizen-engagement process itself.

So, earlier this month, Lexington joined more than 400 other cities in submitting ideas to Bloomberg in the hope of winning a $5 million first prize or one of four $1 million second prizes to help make their ideas reality.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will choose 20 cities as finalists in December. The winners will be announced in early 2013.

Lexington's proposal is called It involves creating an online platform with city data and reports to help citizens identify problems, then aggregate and manage their ideas for solving them.

Bloomberg Mayors Challenge: Lexington, KY from Bullhorn on Vimeo. will be a "collecting tank and control tower" to organize and manage ideas as well as connect people and organizations within the community. Efforts will focus on seven key areas: crime, housing, social services, aging and the community, health, education and jobs.

The basic idea is that government often functions best not as a problem-solver but as the facilitator of problem-solving by businesses, non-profit organizations, churches, community groups, entrepreneurs and volunteers.

"It's a powerful idea," the city's application says, "that serving up government transparency in a social-media platform can fuel citizen engagement and improve a city."

So, is this more than just a high-tech suggestion box?

"You mean the black hole? Yes," Gray said. "We recognized that the big idea is not just the ideas but the continuous engagement of citizens in the process. It's using technology to push the fabric of democratic process. It's about partnerships and good management, and the platform helps you manage."

If Lexington wins money from Bloomberg, the application said it would be used to develop, pay a "director of city innovation" to manage the process and fund some initial projects that grew out of citizens' suggestions for the competition.

Those projects are:

 Expand the Better Bites healthy-food program now at city park concession stands into local schools to reach more kids.

 Create more bicycle lanes and walking trails to improve local health.

 Expand the Fayette County Public Schools' Delivery-to-Diploma program with a focus on expanding early childhood education.

 Partner with the University of Kentucky's True Lean program in the College of Engineering to use Toyota-Lean management principles to improve efficiency in city government.

Gray and his staff plan to have much of this work under way before Bloomberg Philanthropies even chooses its winners.

CirrusMio, a new technology development company in Lexington, is already working on the online platform. City officials also have begun forming partnerships for the projects with UK, the Blue Grass Community Foundation, the Fayette County Public Schools and other organizations.

(An interesting side note: The Bloomberg application asks when the mayor's term ends. Lexington responded that Gray's first term ends Dec. 31, 2014, "but he is interested in a second or third term." The Urban County Charter limits a mayor to three consecutive terms.)

Gray said he thinks Lexington has a good shot at being a Mayors Challenge winner.

"If they're measuring success to date, learning to date, engagement, innovation and creativity to date, I think we've got a good chance of a least making the top 20," Gray said, adding that even if Lexington doesn't get Bloomberg money he will try to find ways to do most of this project. "It makes too much sense not to."

That is the challenge. Gathering good ideas is one thing; making them happen is quite another.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader