Trust, Leadership, and Courage: Keys to Local Innovation

The federal government's long-range financial projections demand that local and regional governments create innovative ways to address challenges and opportunities.
March 29, 2006
Bob O'Neill
By Robert J. O'Neill Jr.  |  Contributor
Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association

Elected and appointed officials in local government face enormous challenges. The speed and complexity of worldwide change are taxing every institution and complicating government processes and functions. The things that matter most to citizens -- employment, education, safety and security, health care, and the environment -- transcend conventional boundaries of our federal system and our public, private, and nonprofit sectors, so the burden falls on local government to grapple with these issues. Current approaches to federalism and the reality of the federal government's long-range financial projections demand that local and regional governments create innovative ways to address challenges and opportunities.

So what do we know about innovation in the local and regional context? How do we successfully develop and incubate new approaches to important issues? What sustains innovation and creates a culture of adaptation?

I have spent most of my career trying to develop a capacity for innovation in government organizations. I have studied some of the "best organizations" in each sector. Having worked very hard in Hampton and Fairfax County, Virginia, to develop the capacity to innovate and having observed the approaches used in places such as Phoenix and Charlotte, I have learned many lessons. One of my most important observations is that, while there are an infinite number of conditions and circumstances facing local governments, the innovators exhibit a number of similarities that are necessary to sustain innovation over time. These include strong citizen trust, managerial leadership and competency, and policy and managerial courage.

One of the most significant factors determining the success of local government is how it relates to those it serves. I believe that the working capital of innovation is citizen trust. Given the "fishbowl" in which local governments operate and the constant media attention drawn to their unsuccessful ideas, most governments are risk-averse. Governments in which trust levels are low rarely try anything new, since failure is magnified. Governments with strong levels of citizen trust seem able to withstand the occasional failure and continue to innovate.

One has only to examine the City of Bellevue, Washington (pop. 117,000), to get a feel for the level of trust and community vision shared by citizens and their local government. The city is dedicated "to serving residents and providing them with ... the resources ... they need to maintain and improve their neighborhoods." The council's vision statement -- which talks about the council and staff's commitment to customer service, quality, and partnership and how the city "cares about its citizens and employees and values its roots" -- is prominently displayed on the city's Web site. And on countless occasions, Bellevue has partnered with citizens to preserve their vibrant and healthy neighborhoods.

Strong political and managerial leadership and competency also play a major role in determining a local government's level of innovation. Having leaders who can create meaning and a compelling vision within the strategy of change, support and protect a culture of innovation, and focus on results and accountability are important prerequisites. Being able to synthesize information to create a persuasive case for change and to execute strategies designed to move an organization forward are at the heart of what makes a transformational leader. Never being satisfied with "good enough" and having a driving curiosity for what "could be" are essential. The value of senior management leadership is measured, in part, by how well the organization performs tomorrow. There is no substitute for managers who can develop and link vision, strategy, and results.

The city of Phoenix (pop. 1.3 million) is particularly adept at leveraging the combination of political and managerial leadership. The elected officials let the city manager do what he does best while they focus on providing a far-reaching vision for the community. This successful pairing of political and managerial leadership has earned Phoenix the reputation as one of the two best-managed cities in the world and one of the two most highly ranked U.S. cities, according to the Governing/Syracuse University Government Performance Project.

Finally, there is no substitute for policy and managerial courage. Organizations that deliver results that matter to those they serve and develop extraordinary levels of trust are led by elected and appointed leaders who are unafraid to tackle tough issues in new ways. They nurture an organization that succeeds often and is not afraid to fail.

The city of Charlotte, North Carolina (pop. 540,828), exhibited this kind of courage during the early 1990s, when the city launched its City Within a City (CWAC) initiative. Charlotte officials easily could have written off the city's decaying neighborhoods in favor of channeling public resources toward its rapidly growing downtown financial center. Instead, in 1991, city leaders launched a comprehensive (and risky) series of strategies -- including workforce development, educational attainment, crime reduction, small business assistance, and improvements in neighborhood housing policies and community appearance -- aimed at meeting the community development and quality-of-life needs in its older urban neighborhoods and business districts. While Charlotte considers the CWAC initiative a success, those involved readily admit that much remains to be accomplished. Initiatives such as these, which tackle tough issues in innovative ways, are long journeys with sometimes changing destinations.

These are the important concepts we must adopt to better develop and support innovators. If local government is an "industry," it greatly "underinvests" in research and development. We need to do a better job of identifying the big ideas that will help shape our response to the larger issues facing local government. We can be more helpful to innovators in identifying leading practices and making them happen.

Local government leaders are a committed and dedicated force to improve the quality of life in our communities. While the challenge of innovation is formidable, the rewards for our residents are well worth the price.