Every community wants to be an innovator these days. The problem is, many local governments aren’t doing it correctly. They’re paying lip service to the idea, talking about transformation and emerging technology and where they’ll be in five, ten, twenty years.
But they aren’t setting themselves up for success.
In order for real, sustained change to happen in local government, there needs to be a deeply rooted culture of innovation throughout the agency. Let’s look at what that entails:
1. Make everyone an innovator
Some cities have innovation officers. Many don’t. And while these people are in a prime position to empower next-gen thinking, you don’t need “innovation” in your title to actually innovate.
To be successful, innovation shouldn’t be confined to one person or team. It needs to be an integral part of all city officials’ jobs. Not just CIOs. Not just city managers. Not just the IT leads.
It means the clerk who spends a third of her day filing paperwork can be an innovator. The 311 analyst who’s getting swamped with calls. The procurement lead who sees missed opportunities due to bloated processes.
Everyone should be encouraged to ask, what would make my job easier? What would make my city better? In fact, some of the best ideas come from the people doing the daily work — they see firsthand what improvements are needed, and where processes and tools could be improved.
There are two big hurdles to democratizing innovation within a local government.
First, there’s a perception among many government workers that technology — automated processes, digital services, etc. — will threaten their jobs. And while these advancements do decrease the time spent on many tasks, the focus should be on what employees are gaining out of this automation: more time to learn, try new things, and focus on projects that move the needle in their communities.
Second, some departmental leaders assume their teams don’t have the ability to innovate. This is shortsighted. While not everyone is a natural changemaker, everyone has the ability to enact change. The onus is on the leaders to empower their people to try: encourage people to challenge the status quo. Reward people for questioning whether there’s a better way to do something.
2. Provide Open Trainings and Access to Information
Conferences are a great place to meet and share ideas. But the reality is, not everyone can go to conferences (when they’re even being held, that is). For many smaller towns and counties, the price tag is out of reach. And even those who can afford it usually send only one or two people.
To truly foster a culture of innovation, we need more open trainings, online panels, and learning opportunities to encourage transformation across all city and county workers.
There are a number of great resources out there, if you know where to look. (We’ve rounded up a range of conference alternatives here.) This is also why Govlaunch was built as a free resource — so that innovative thinking is available to everyone in all levels of local government. The more inclusive this knowledge-sharing is, the faster agencies will be able to keep up with a rapidly changing world.
3. Bring the public in
One of the best ways to solve a city’s problems is to listen to what people actually want solved. By opening the innovation process up to citizens, cities ensure a more inclusive approach. They also allocate resources to things the public cares most about.
How do you get residents involved? There are countless ways. The easiest is to just ask people; you can do this via town halls, social media, online polls, or even go so far as to build an app, like the Fingal County Council, IE, did to engage “unheard voices.” You could host a hackathon, like Louisville did to ideate how to prevent fires in vacant buildings. You could offer community grants, or let locals choose your next investment, like Cranberry Township’s Project of the Year program. You could form public-private partnerships, and engage civic hackers like Code for America. You can even invite residents to balance the town budget. (Want more? Check out our deep dive on citizen engagement for a long list of ideas.)
Looping in citizens brings more brains into the brainstorming process. It also builds local support for change and keeps governments accountable. In fact, once they see what’s possible, citizens are going to push for greater innovation from their governments.
4. Embrace failure
When we talk to local government innovators on the Govlaunch podcast, we like to ask each person about a time when something went wrong. Everyone has a different experience to share, but there’s a very clear common theme: failure is part of innovation. As Brian Smith from Mississauga, ON, noted:
“Cities don’t like failing, but embracing an appetite for change and accepting small failures in the name of seeking improvement is the basis for innovation.”
Failure is what makes projects better. If something doesn’t work the first time, it’s not a loss. It’s a chance to learn why, and try again with a stronger solution. Failure teaches resilience and adaptability, two characteristics that are vital for governments to navigate uncertain times, as the events of recent months have made all too clear.
Local governments cannot be afraid to fail — those who are will never push the boundaries enough to enact real change.
5. Commit to innovation
What happens when most people return from a conference? After a few days removed from the daily grind, they come back full of energy and inspiration. Within a day or so, those notebooks full of ideas are often cast aside, and the weekly routine sets back in.
Innovation isn’t a project; it’s a policy. To create a culture of innovation, we need an ongoing commitment to it.
6. Follow what others are doing
Local governments don’t have to go it alone. There are thousands of cities and counties implementing creative solutions around the world. Some of these solutions work. Others don’t. But all of them provide a valuable lesson to others — because the problems faced by one government are often similar to those experienced by another.
More than 3,000 local government innovation projects have now been shared on Govlaunch, from Australia to Arizona. Some introduce groundbreaking technology. Some are tech-free. Innovation can happen at any size and at any budget — the most important thing is that it’s backed by a culture that embraces learning from failure, sharing ideas, and being accessible to everyone, both inside and outside the local government.