InnovateGov in Detroit: Connecting the university’s most vital resource to a city’s most urgent challenges

This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum* Engaged Scholarship Series.  If you are doing Engaged Scholarship or teaching a class that asks students to do community engagement, contact Andrea Benjamin at andrea.benjamin@ou.edu. We would love to highlight your work!

By Kesicia Dickinson, Marty Jordan, Sarah Reckhow, and Joshua Sapotichne (Michigan State University)

On July 18, 2013, the City of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the largest U.S. municipality to declare bankruptcy. The city’s financial crisis had severe consequences for the day-to-day operations of city government — diminishing capacity to collect taxes, to respond to blight in neighborhoods, and to provide a baseline of public services and social supports. Through the InnovateGov program, we have developed a way to connect Michigan State University’s (MSU) most vital resource — talented and motivated students — to local government agencies and nonprofits charged with governing post-bankruptcy Detroit. Our students work on projects directly contributing to service delivery and resident engagement in a city where fiscal cuts have drained human capital and the benefits of a downtown resurgence have scarcely touched many of the city’s neighborhoods.

Since the summer of 2015, InnovateGov has opened doors to experiential learning and public service careers for MSU students while strengthening the university’s partnerships and impact in the city of Detroit. The program is a heavy lift for everyone involved. Program management is costly and time consuming. Instruction is both rewarding and challenging. And the logistics and fiscal model do not fit neatly into existing bureaucratic structures at MSU.

The goal of this post is to share the key outcomes we’ve observed and the challenges we have encountered from running this unique program. We focus on concrete ideas and lessons in the hope of providing a template for those who might be interested in linking motivated students to real world experience in city agencies and nonprofits.

Partnerships and Impacts

InnovateGov began in 2015 with 7 students and a single partnership with the City of Detroit’s Department of Finance. By 2017, the program grew to 50 students and dozens of Detroit partners–including the City of Detroit, Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), Wayne County, and a wide range of nonprofits. Although demand for student interns allowed the program to grow exponentially, we found that 50 was too large and created many logistical challenges, so we re-adjusted. Today, InnovateGov places between 25 and 35 students into Detroit public service internships each summer.

Throughout the 5 years of the program, the core goal has remained the same: support our partners with meaningful work that enhances community impact and engagement. To this end, we match students to internships each spring based on partner organization requests and critical needs. We work with many organizations and agencies that have limited staff capacity, so we provide the recruitment and screening of interns. 

Our focus on impact includes two major components: 1) the work matters; and 2) fusing learning and impact through a deliverable project. We prepare the students for the reality of mundane tasks, while connecting those tasks to the bigger picture of public service. Many of our partner agencies and nonprofits face backlogs of data entry, unprocessed forms, and woefully disorganized files. Yet performing this work swiftly and effectively can have a significant and lasting impact.

For example, InnovateGov students have helped the city gain a more sustainable stream of revenue from income taxes. In 2015, they created a master database identifying whether residents of downtown apartments filed income tax returns. For tax year 2013, only 20% of the units complied with City income tax laws and there was a 40% compliance rate for tax year 2014. Based on this significant noncompliance rate, the city filed a series of lawsuits against landlords requiring them to produce tenant lists. According to former Deputy Treasurer Debra Pospiech, “The court ruled in our favor based in large part upon the students’ empirical data to support our position.” Meanwhile, our intern team in the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office in 2017 devised a process to assist 1,000 Wayne County residents in danger of foreclosure. The interns reached 900 residents and successfully arranged payment plans to cancel the foreclosure process. With some assistance from the business and philanthropic communities, the other 100 households were also covered—and no one lost their homes. This work not only keeps people in their homes, it contributes to the long-term stability and homeownership rates in Detroit neighborhoods.

We also require a project for the InnovateGov class that links impact to student learning. Within each agency and organization, the intern teams prepare a “deliverable” project in consultation with their supervisor. The deliverable can take many forms: an outreach strategy; a searchable map of program availability; an accessible new database; or research to improve program implementation. Our students present their deliverables at the end of each summer to their supervisor. For example, this past year, one student placed with the Third Circuit Court’s Jury Services used her understanding of psychology and creative design to modify jury summons forms and make them more aesthetically pleasing and less ominous, to foster greater juror compliance. Another student created an app for fire department inspectors to update the GIS coordinates for residential and commercial properties as city maps hadn’t been updated in decades. Still another group of students at Detroit Water and Sewerage compiled a resource contact sheet that could be sent out with monthly water bills to help residents facing water shutoffs. Our students simultaneously gain professional experience while helping to deliver essential services in Detroit. Often, higher level administrators attend these presentations. For example, DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti attended the presentations of the school district interns, with a particular interest in learning about strategies to improve teacher recruitment.

Illustrating the program’s impact, more than 90% of our partners have rated the program as “good” or “excellent.” At least 25 students have received offers of full-time employment with their placement after completing their internship, including jobs with the City of Detroit, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Build Institute, and the United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

Learning: Not a typical class

Just as InnovateGov is not a typical internship program, neither is the corresponding course conventional. We use a combination of guest speakers, creative assignments, and flipped-classroom tactics to provide students context for the economic, racial, political, social, and governmental challenges facing the City. Each week is dedicated to a particular topic or theme, related to economic revitalization, gentrification, education, transportation, or citizen advocacy. For many of the classes, we invite policy practitioners and civic leaders working on these very issues to speak to the cohort. Students prepare by reviewing relevant material and ask insightful questions during the talks to grapple with the content at a deeper level. One concern we encountered is that the key leaders of City agencies and organizations do not always reflect the majority of Detroit residents. Students understandably complained about a disconnect between some policy practitioners and the people they claim to represent. Although students want to hear from these leaders, as aspiring public servants, they also wish for more input from typical Detroit residents.

Beyond considering outside voices, the program also aims to challenge students’ own assumptions. At the start, we ask students to reflect on their prior knowledge and potential biases regarding Detroit. We remind students to return to and confront those assumptions throughout the semester. To facilitate this, we ask students to write weekly reflections about their internship experiences, the neighborhoods they’ve visited, and time living in Detroit. We also ask students to join a book club with five or six other students, picking one of a handful of culled books about Detroit. The students read and discuss the book among their peers, sharing their individual and collective observations in one of the final classes. These assignments allow students space to grow personally and professionally.

Moreover, we frequently flip the classroom or ask students to take the lead in presenting content. For example, we spend several classes allowing students to work on developing their deliverable projects, seeking feedback from instructors and their peers. We also ask students interning with organizations addressing the thematic areas of the week to take a more active role in that week’s conversation. We even invite some students to be part of a question and answer panel during class. For example, we asked all InnovateGov interns working at DPSCD to discuss their experiences and ideas for improving education in the City. Finally, we allow time in each class for students to share the positives and negatives of their internship experiences and seek advice on how to resolve more challenging situations. Everyone benefits from hearing about these successes and failures.

Students: Diversity and Inclusion

In addition to our goals for student learning through internships and coursework, we prioritize inclusion. Unpaid public service internships are often inaccessible for students who have limited financial means. InnovateGov focuses on recruiting and supporting students from under-represented groups, including students of color and first-generation college students. We also recruit students from the City of Detroit, who often have a strong dedication to their home city and a deep base of knowledge and experiences to draw upon. For example, nearly four out of ten students in the latest cohort were Detroiters, and six out of ten were students of color. 

The students spend 10-weeks of the summer in Detroit, living together in dorms at Wayne State University. The length of the program and the shared housing helps promote a sense of community among the students in each cohort. Students do not have to pay for housing. The program re-invests money from student tuition to pay for the dorms, a meal per diem, parking, and we provide need-based scholarships to defray tuition costs for students. These investments are designed to make public service internships more feasible for our students.

Beyond the course component described above, students also attend community engagement and service events every Friday. Like instructional time and internship placements, these Friday activities are essential to the summer experience. On some Fridays, we collaborate with our partners to provide networking and professionalization opportunities. Still other Fridays, we organize events that allow our students to get to know Detroit, especially those not from the City.

Kesicia Dickinson with InnovateGov students in the summer of 2019

What’s next?

Looking ahead, we hope to extend our community partnerships to fuel a broader agenda of community engaged research. So far, our work in Detroit has motivated one research article, recently published in Urban Affairs Review: “Governing without Government: Nonprofit Governance in Detroit and Flint.” Yet the reality is that the academic calendar and our responsibilities on campus often leave us scrambling to prepare for student recruitment and placement each year, with little time to maintain more continuous engagement with our Detroit partners to inform our research agendas. Thus, linking this program more fully to research remains a work in progress. We hope this account offers some helpful ideas and inspiration to our colleagues in urban politics, public policy, public administration, and political science. Please feel free to reach out if you would like to know more. The opportunity to see our students have life-changing experiences through InnovateGov has deepened our commitment to this program and to the broader goals of experiential learning in cities in conjunction with deep local partnerships.

Author Information

Kesicia Dickinson, Marty Jordan, Sarah Reckhow, and Joshua Sapotichne are in the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University.

Author Twitter Handles:

Kesicia- @KesiciaD

Marty- @MartyPJordan

Sarah- @SReckhow

Josh- @joshsapotichne

InnovateGov- @MSUInnovateGov


*The Urban Affairs Forum is presented by Urban Affairs Review, a a peer-reviewed, bi-monthly journal focused on questions of politics, governance, and public policy specifically as they relate to cities and/or their regions.

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