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Good Ideas From Government's Front Lines

The people who deliver services directly to the public know a lot. Denver is setting the pace for tapping that resource.

It is no surprise that front-line employees often have the best ideas for making an organization work better, faster and cheaper. And when a process falls short, they see it firsthand. Led by Chief Performance Officer David Edinger, Denver's Peak Academy is one of the country's most successful efforts to turn the insights of municipal workers into meaningful results.

Peak Academy brings employees together to teach them the skills for making small, continuous improvements in how the city-county government does business. By building an organizational culture in which workers feel empowered to speak up and managers to listen, Edinger hopes to help Denver save money and create more value for citizens.

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Edinger's favorite description for the old way of doing things is the "idea shredder" -- what happens when leaders ask for employee input and then fail to follow through with action. This mentality erodes employees' trust in their ability to make a difference in the workplace, cutting off an important line of communication for ground-up innovation. Roadblocks to change like this are fundamentally cultural problems, and by investing in employees and building a more positive, innovation-friendly organizational culture, they can be overcome.

Peak Academy offers Denver employees the chance to enroll in four-hour "green-belt" and five-day "black-belt" workshops that teach the basics of "lean" management, the ethos of staff-driven improvement created at Toyota in the 1970s and '80s. With some 600 black-belt graduates and more than 3,170 green-belt graduates so far, Peak Academy has created a critical mass of change agents at city hall.

Denver's animal protection agency is one where an empowered employee has created an innovative solution to a long-running problem. For 25 years, the agency had utilized the same cumbersome method to evaluate incoming animals, which have to pass a series of tests before going up for adoption. With medical, behavioral and shelter staff preparing one report jointly, the animal shelter had to deal with a constant backlog as cases were handed off from one team to the next.

Inspired by Peak Academy training, information technology analyst DeLaine Zalasar saw a way of fixing the backlog problem. Drawing on a Las Vegas shelter's example, Zalasar proposed creating a data dashboard that would compile the results of incoming animals' medical exams and behavioral assessments in real time. This would enable different teams to report their work independently, responding to backups as they occurred. "Sometimes you get set in your ways," Zalasar says, "and I think the Peak process opened everybody up to new ideas."

Fed up with the old system, Zalasar's coworkers got on board quickly, and she got the go-ahead from the agency's director, Alice Nightengale. After writing reports, testing the system and training staff, the agency was ready to roll out its data dashboard, which has cut the time it takes to put an animal up for adoption from 14 days to nine and saved the city more than $495,950 in its first two years.

These days, ideas like Zalasar's are bubbling up throughout Denver's bureaucracies. Inside our governmental enterprises, thousands more ideas like that are percolating, waiting only for someone to listen to them. While mayor of Indianapolis, I used to walk around offices and talk to field crews, asking them what one thing they would change to improve their jobs. Almost everyone had a worthwhile idea. What governments too often lack is a plan to change the culture and support those ideas, operationalizing enough of them to provide an incentive to those interested in continuous improvement.

Of course, achieving long-term culture change in a sprawling local government will require more than just sending employees to a workshop. Besides committing to an "unrelenting investment in employees," Edinger says, "leadership must evolve to visionaries who support this innovative work and find it natural to manage strategically and by the numbers versus reacting to the daily fires."

There's no question that a culture of empowerment, where listening and doing go hand in hand, improves responsiveness to citizens' needs and demands. What's more, it taps into a resource right in front of government leaders: the workers who provide services directly to the public.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He can be reached at
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