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How Sugar Beets Symbolize Innovation in Government

In Karen Thoreson's world, few things are ruled out as a possibility for improving public services.

Karen Thoreson thinks about innovation and government a lot. As president of the Alliance for Innovation, she's an expert on how municipalities can use fresh ideas to improve services without breaking the budget. 

It’s not a new dilemma for her. She spent three decades of her career in local government -- as Glendale, Ariz.’s economic development director, as the assistant city manager for Tucson, Ariz., and as executive director of the Boulder, Colo., Housing Authority -- before being asked to lead the alliance in 2009.

We talked to Thoreson about how to create “conditions for innovation,” technology's role in change, what sugar beets have to do with government innovation and more. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The word innovation is ubiquitous. What does it mean to you?

We define innovation in local government to mean a new practice or approach that produces better results. I think that takes some of the scariness out of the word. It can be about invention or incremental change. 

The smartphone was innovative because it changed the purpose of the phone. But an incremental change that might be just as sweeping is putting wheels on luggage. That changed the experience for travelers by simply combining two common items to produce a better product. 

All changes aren’t innovations, right? 

More than 60 percent of the changes we see across all local government involve organizations adopting a standard prevailing practice. About 25 to 30 percent take up a leading practice, which is not widely adopted yet but recognized as effective. Just a small group are trying emerging practices. But if you’re going through the effort of making a change, why not consider the leading practice over the prevailing practice?

Does innovation in government today tend to involve technology?

Technology applied in the right way speeds innovation along, but it isn’t the innovation itself. 

What spurs innovation?

It’s the thought leaders in local government who push change. One of the assets of the alliance is that people self-select to belong because they want to be around those thought leaders and share the best ideas. That juices up the thought leaders to do more.  

What are the biggest barriers to innovation? 

Bad politics and bad communication. If there’s conflict between the elected officials and the appointed folks, it slows everything down. 

Another barrier is the lack of tolerance for failure. If you’re trying to do something new, the likelihood that you’ll do it perfectly the first time is small. The organization has to have a tolerance for making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.

What helps facilitate innovation?

The process starts with getting the problem defined correctly. Then you can begin generating creative ideas and piloting on a small scale. You want to figure out the smallest approach that you can test so that if there is a problem, you can make changes early on.

We talk about setting the conditions for innovation. That might start with identifying who will be part of the innovation. We’re big proponents of cross-functional teams that are nonhierarchical and bring in people with different points of view -- people from different levels; people from different departments; people with different expertise; people who have different perspectives. If you’ve got a bean counter on your team, that’s great, but you probably want a wild-eyed visionary too. You want people who are working on the ground and at the top. 

Could you give us an example of where this approach has worked well? 

Montgomery, Ohio. They couldn’t buy the salt they needed for roads in the winter. The manager had a problem, brought in a cross-functional team and came up with a solution: a beet derivative. Sugar beets produce some of the same results as salt, and it ended up being cheaper than salt and more effective.

Another part of the alliance’s mantra is to share innovations. It’s now commonplace to use beet derivatives as a salt substitute in the Midwest.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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