Out of Desperation, Innovation

Tough times create an appetite for change. Nowhere has that been more true than in government this year.
by , | December 12, 2011
 

Since we are in the midst of a holiday season of cheer and good will, let's recognize at least one way that 2011 has been a great year for governments.

It's true that the year has brought Scrooge-type looks from budget directors trying to balance a budget, furrowed eyebrows from governors or mayors announcing at a town meeting a drop in resources, and anguished countenances from struggling workers and homeowners.

But for dedicated public officials, 2011 has produced a broad array of operational innovations. Looking back over these columns of the past year, some broad trends in innovation emerge:

Smarter government through analytics: Dramatic changes in how we produce governance are creating opportunities for smarter government as well. Moving from paper to digital systems and from clipboards to wireless handheld devices sets the stage for a return to the use of informed judgment by public managers. Smarter government will capitalize on those trends to use data to prevent problems before they occur, provide insights across operating agencies and allow more targeted use of resources.

Innovators attempting to pursue progressive goals increasingly found ways around rule-bound restrictions -- the unintended consequence of the reforms of the Progressive Era -- that limit the discretion and creativity of public employees.

A new place for crowd wisdom: Elected officials too often spend night after night in community meetings where a few loud representatives exercising their right to be heard drown out the kind of genuine dialogue that can produce useful insights. Despite their protestations to the contrary, officials often derive little benefit from these sessions. Now, even the unassuming can contribute to the wisdom of the crowd, thanks to an array of new social-networking tools that make it far easier to gather information in a collaborative and dynamic manner rather than merely processing one-way complaints and requests for services.

Whether planning environmental projects that enhance compliance with federal mandates or collaborating to solve neighborhood noise complaints, public officials are moving from telling or being told what to do to the collaborative and interactive — gathering insights that prove critically important in difficult times.

Replacing mere compliance with more-effective outcomes: Officials who are committed to better outcomes, especially in environmental areas, increasingly are finding ways to produce dramatic results at a fraction of the costs threatened by prescriptive regulations. Often, as with the issue of brownfields, onerous and costly remedies make action so expensive to urban taxpayers that nothing gets done. Increasingly, however, innovators design programs that forge new partnerships and combine those with new technologies to produce much more for much less.

Federal environmental mandates, for instance, have proven hugely problematic for state and local governments, diverting enormous resources often to very marginal enhancements with no evaluation of public-health trade-offs. Increasingly, however, creative officials are coming up with new approaches to environment infrastructure that have the potential to save billions of dollars, such as a New York City's proposal to use "gray" infrastructure to deal with combined sewer overflows.

Unlocking operational efficiencies: In tough times, new operational approaches can unlock value. New York City's Water Board, for example, issued a very broad request for operational efficiencies, asking private companies to work with city government to identify potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in enhancements through new technologies and approaches. Indianapolis took a different approach, combining several utilities under one umbrella, creating synergies among front- and back-office operations, and then inviting private managers to assist public employees. As a consequence, the city was able to put $200 million into much-needed infrastructure without new fees or taxes.

Of course, dozens of other innovative breakthroughs took place in a range of areas. Many cities structured innovation-delivery units in mayors' offices to accelerate these breakthroughs. And human-services providers found new ways to address health and other services. For example, the Center for Economic Opportunity in New York City approaches the problems of poverty by supporting its own public-private "innovation fund."

As the innovative breakthroughs of the past year illustrate, tough times shake up the status quo and create an environment for change. Nothing will focus the mind more on innovation than financial desperation.

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