The Building Blocks of Local Government Innovation

There's a lot more to it than a light bulb moment. It won't happen without the basic foundations in place.
March 30, 2015
By Jerry Newfarmer  |  Contributor
Jerry Newfarmer, former city manager of Cincinnati, Ohio, and San Jose, Calif., is president and CEO of Management Partners.

From open-data projects to predictive policing, everyone in local government wants to innovate right now. Ours is a golden age for innovation, with technology enabling government leaders to radically change the way they do business and share their success stories with the world.

But achieving true innovation requires more than a light-bulb moment. Innovation sits atop the pyramid of developmental stages that nearly all local governments go through, and each level in the pyramid is foundational to others. Any organization wishing to achieve transformational innovation -- which should include all governments -- must first master the lower levels, because breakdowns at those levels will hinder or prevent breakthroughs at the highest level. As Thomas Edison said, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

At the base is strong support at the departmental level, providing employees with the elements they need to accomplish their missions. This requires leaders to put people, technology, policies and procedures in place that will foster stable financial management, accountability, compliance with policies, teamwork and demonstrated values, including high ethical standards and professional practices. Breakdowns at this level can affect the legitimacy of government in the eyes of the public and create barriers to providing good service.

After all, the primary purpose of municipal operations is to ensure excellent service-delivery operations for police, fire, public works, utilities, health and human services, parks and more. This is the most visible part of the any local government. Excellence in service delivery involves having the right people in the right places, along with the tools, policies and practices they need.

Having these elements in place also sets the stage for the top level of innovation. With the organization running well, people in it are empowered to think beyond day-to-day problems and turn their attention to emerging issues, needs, problems and opportunities, and they can work to develop the strategies needed to address them.

This includes trying new ideas, with the recognition that needs change and approaches need to change as well. This is not a risk-free process. But if the first two building blocks -- departmental support and service-delivery system -- are mastered, employees understand that they can afford to take risks without jeopardizing the organization's mission. If leaders fail to provide these two foundational blocks, the risk for error in innovation increases greatly and may lead to disappointing results. Leaders must have the backs of the innovators.

Most local-government leaders want to be innovative; they want to solve the most pressing needs of their communities and foster ideas that improve their constituents' quality of life. But innovation is almost always the culmination of careful processes that uncover needs and point to solutions.

By paying attention to the basic functions of government -- by making sure our organizations have the necessary people, policies and practices in place and can competently deliver the services that residents expect -- leaders set the stage for true innovations that have the power to transform.