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Forget Technology; Denver Turns to Its Employees to Fix Problems

Instead of looking for better results through data analytics, new technology or paid consultants, Denver looks to its own employees for simple, straightforward reforms.

The Denver Peak Academy teaches city employees to visualize problems and simple solutions.
Benjamin Rasmussen
In Denver city government, this is what an innovator looks like: White-haired, dressed in light blue scrubs and wearing a pair of sneakers, Tara Morse works as an animal care supervisor. Each day, she conducts about a dozen examinations of new dogs and cats that arrive at the Denver Animal Shelter. Not long ago, Morse came up with a simple idea to save her agency about $75,000 a year.

When pets get reclaimed by their owners, they’re usually collected in fewer than 15 days. After that, the owners rarely turn up. Yet city and county policy dictated that the agency hold animals for 30 days before trying to place them in another home. The longer they stayed, the more their health deteriorated. And as their health worsened, their chances of being adopted dropped as well. Morse recommended a new policy of 15 days. The result was just what Morse had predicted: cheaper, more effective care.

Morse was putting to use skills she learned at the Denver Peak Academy, a city-run training program, housed within the mayor’s budget office, that teaches municipal employees analytical methods to improve their daily work. Graduates apply those lessons toward improvements within their home agencies. The academy functions as a school for government innovation, though head instructor Brian Elms quibbles with the term, especially when applied to solutions as low tech and commonsense as the one Morse proposed. “It’s just a good idea,” Elms says. “Is it an innovation? I don’t know what else you call it.”

Cities throughout the country are creating offices tasked with spurring innovation. But the Peak Academy represents a different strain. Instead of looking for better results through data analytics, new technology or paid consultants, Denver is turning to its ground-level employees for simple, straightforward reforms. More than a suggestion box, the academy provides a structured ongoing process for soliciting new ideas and making sure they happen.

So far about 2,000 employees from 25 city agencies have undergone at least the basic two-day training from the academy. Nearly 300 have taken the weeklong course, which requires graduates to generate at least three ideas that would make their departments run more smoothly.

While the program costs about $750,000 a year, including the salaries of the eight-person staff running the academy, the budget office claims the city has already saved about $3 million by implementing the ideas of academy alumni. If every alumni proposal were in place today, the academy says that the annual cost savings would be closer to $12 million.

Peak Academy
Peak Academy fellow Jerraud Coleman’s mapping.
The Denver Peak Academy teaches city employees to visualize problems and simple solutions. Benjamin Rasmussen
Among the 50 or so finished projects, most are small-bore in nature. Take, for example, a suggestion by Amber Vancil, a Peak Academy graduate and accountant in the Department of Public Works. Vancil noticed that the wastewater division used certified mail to warn residents that the city intended to place a lien on their property for unpaid utility bills. By shifting to first-class mail, she saved the city an estimated $46,000 per year. “It’s baby steps,” says Jerraud Coleman, another academy graduate and a permit technician in the public works department. Coleman’s latest project involves a shift to paperless residential parking permits. “If we do a million of these small innovations,” he says, “we can make a great impact.”

The idea for the Peak Academy originated with a campaign promise by Mayor Michael Hancock in 2011. What he had in mind was a performance division modeled after Baltimore’s CitiStat, a management improvement program that uses data to hold agencies accountable for their work. But CitiStat is centralized and top-down, and Dave Edinger, the man Hancock tapped to be his chief performance officer, argued that a top-down program was unlikely to yield results in Denver.

City workers, Edinger believed, weren’t ready for further scrutiny and demands from management. In the past few years, the city had cut 680 positions from its workforce, added furlough days and asked employees to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance. “Morale was very low,” says Hancock, thinking back to the beginning of his term. “They needed something to feel like they could take control.”

Edinger teamed up with Scotty Martin, the city’s process improvement manager, to create the Peak Academy. To encourage participation among city employees, the team promised that no one would lose their jobs as a result of efficiencies they proposed through the academy. Employees’ jobs might change, but not their employment status. That decision has been critical for getting government workers to embrace the program. “You go down the road of employee-led innovation,” Edinger says, “you better make that guarantee.”

For the curriculum, they borrowed heavily from the Lean business management model pioneered by Toyota. In car manufacturing, the Lean method involves a meticulous review of production lines in order to eliminate steps that a customer wouldn’t consider important and wouldn’t be willing to pay for. The goal is to save money and time without sacrificing quality.

The main local hospital, Denver Health, already used Lean management, so the city had a nearby example to follow. Because the city had a $94 million budget shortfall in Hancock’s first year as mayor, whatever training materials the academy used had to be free. Although Edinger and Martin modified the Lean approach to suit the city’s needs, the basic lesson plans and exercises were derived from free websites.

Any municipal employee can volunteer for training, either the shorter “green-belt” course or the more intensive “black-belt” course. The city pays employees their regular salary during the training and issues a certificate once they’re finished. Afterward, graduates often host one-off improvement events within their home agencies, helping coworkers and supervisors find ways to fix backlogs and improve workflow.

In the academy, trainees learn several ways to identify problems and propose solutions. One is a “value stream analysis,” in which an employee strings together sticky notes for every step of a process, such as reviewing and approving parking permit applications. The final version of the analysis not only shows how much time it takes to complete the process, but which steps could be eliminated. Like many of the tools taught in the academy, a value stream analysis relies on graphics to help agency staff see and understand the problem.

When Animal Care Supervisor Morse proposed reducing the number of days the shelter holds animals, she used another Lean tool called an A3, which explains how things currently work, why something needs to change and what the ideal target state would be. The A3 is an example of how workers are learning to make logical, evidence-based arguments for reform. “There’s no secret to the sauce,” Elms says. “We wanted to teach a foundation where everyone could use the same language to attack a problem.”

Municipal governments have long had performance improvement systems in place, but rarely with front-line workers conducting evaluations of their own agencies and then suggesting changes. With citystat programs, an analyst from the mayor’s office applies pressure from outside the agency. Likewise, with a city audit, a team of independent analysts studies an agency and publishes a report with recommendations for improvement. “Even if they came up with the same solutions,” says Barry Hendges, a Peak Academy graduate from the human services department, “you wouldn’t have the same buy-in.”

As the Peak Academy scales up, it’s likely to face a few serious challenges, some of which have begun to emerge in its first two years. One is selection bias. The government workers who undergo the academy training are volunteers. While the academy has recorded impressive results, it’s not yet clear whether the early recruits were influenced by the program, or were people already brimming with reform ideas who merely needed a channel for communicating them.

If it’s the latter, then there may be limitations to the academy’s reach. What happens when somebody reluctantly enters training at a supervisor’s direction, but has no real interest in taking on extra work once they’ve graduated? One recent graduate said she felt coerced by her manager to take the training and did not want to proceed with the innovations she presented at the end of the week. In such cases, the academy may have to formulate a plan to win over workers uninterested in change, or accept that it can only empower those who already want help.

Perhaps the biggest question for the future viability of the program involves its leadership. The academy owes its origins to a trio of dedicated managers who enjoy the mayor’s full backing. With Edinger and Martin—who founded the academy but now monitor its progress from a distance—Elms trades book recommendations on leadership and management, looking for new sources of inspiration to guide their work, a habit that’s rubbed off on the rest of the Peak Academy staff. “We’re nerds,” Elms says with pride. Graduates paste giant process maps on their office walls, admitting they now scrutinize their ordinary routines with efficiency-tinted goggles. “Almost everything you do is a process—getting dressed, making coffee,” Elms says. “It really changes your entire life, not just your work life.” Would the enthusiasm still be there without Elms’ presence? That’s an open question.

Mayor Hancock asserts that the academy isn’t really an initiative that can die with his administration because it has already created a cultural shift in the workplace. “I don’t see it as a program,” Hancock says. “I see it as a value.” Yet those who champion the training say the academy’s success is linked with the mayor’s support. Mid-level managers are willing to accept their employees’ reform ideas in part because they’re products of the mayor’s initiative. When another mayor takes office, it’s not clear that the program will survive.

Regardless of whether the Peak Academy achieves the scale and longevity that its founders seek, it has already extended beyond Denver city government. Within its first two years, the academy received about 30 requests for training slots from city and state agencies in Kansas, New York, Texas and 11 municipalities within Colorado. Ashley Hand, the chief innovation officer for Kansas City, Mo., underwent Denver’s training and now wants to establish her own version of the Peak Academy. What appeals to Hand about the Denver model of innovation is its focus on people rather than tools. Cities such as Boston, New York and San Francisco have become national leaders in innovation, but their brand is more technologically focused. Denver is spending its money on giving its front-line workers new ways to solve problems. “Putting these skills in the hands of staff at all levels,” Hand says, “that’s extremely powerful.”

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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