A New Alliance for Innovation

State and local governments invest only a fraction of what the private sector does in research and development. To make up for that lack of investment, states and localities need a new approach to research, innovation, and the development of best practices.
December 20, 2006 AT 3:00 AM
Bob O'Neill
By Robert J. O'Neill Jr.  |  Contributor
Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association

Dramatic social and demographic changes are creating significant challenges for our communities and local government organizations. For example, schools have students with more native-language and cultural diversity than ever before. And the retirement of baby boomers will have a considerable impact on government coffers and the labor market. These sweeping changes, which cross organizational and institutional boundaries, are affecting the things that matter most to citizens -- employment, education, safety and security, health care, and the environment.

All of these factors -- and more -- should prompt local governments across the country to ask "What do we want our community to be?" and "What will success for our community look like?" Public officials also will have to answer the question of "how." And, as the challenges change, the answers must too; they must evolve out of research and innovation.

As a combined sector, state and local government is a huge industry by any measure. Yet, unlike the private sector, state and local governments have limited "risk" capital and invest only a fraction of what the private sector does in research and development. For local governments, a lack of investment in research combined with a lack of active dialogue focused on innovation and leading practices creates a void that may diminish the vitality, integrity and success of local government in the years to come.

Filling this void requires a new approach to research, innovation, and the development of best practices. The newly formed Alliance for Innovation -- a partnership among IG, the Innovation Groups; ICMA, the International City/County Management Association; and Arizona State University School of Public Affairs -- is designed to respond to these needs by identifying the major forces that will drive local government over the next 10 to 15 years.

A major strength of the Alliance is its ability to bring together some of the best local-government practitioners in the country, along with private-sector partners and academics. The Alliance will create a forum where these thought leaders can discuss major trends, innovations and leading practices. Their dialogues will contribute to the research agenda for the Alliance.

To ensure a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary approach to research, the Alliance has also invited subject experts from universities around the country to participate in the development of the research agenda. Relevant disciplines, such as architecture, planning, engineering, and environmental studies will be involved.

Initial research will focus on identifying leading or best practices that respond to current social and demographic forces. Often a practice may be an innovative and best response to a problem in one local government, but because of socioeconomic, political, or other forces, the practice may not be adoptable in other parts of the country. The research conducted by the Alliance will test the adaptability of a practice and make refinements to ensure its successful application.

Local governments will serve as incubators for best practices, and each step -- implementation, modification, and refinement -- will be subjected to analysis. Using the results, the Alliance will help develop strategies for countless local governments and regions around the world to improve the effectiveness of critical public services and the quality of life in their communities. Additionally, as local governments can be slow to incorporate innovations into practice, the Alliance will develop an approach to help local governments adopt innovations as quickly as possible.

Strong, competent and visionary leadership will be key to implementing the organizational change necessary to ensure the continued success of our communities. Depending on the scope of the innovation introduced, new business models and new skills and competencies may be required among local government professionals. These changes can be unsettling and resisted at many levels throughout an organization or a community. A visionary and trusted leader can make the case for these changes.

The Alliance and its partners will make available to local governments the tools they need to support the introduction of innovative programs and practices in their communities. It won't necessarily create successful leaders, but the Alliance for Innovation can become an important resource engine for leaders with a passion for the vitality, integrity and success of local government now and in the future.