How To Change The Way Local Government Works From The Inside Out

“A city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams.” - Herb Caen


Those who carry this vision forward and empower these dreams are the past, present, and future city leadership and employees. The vision is embodied by the residents of the city. The way a city works, the way it prioritizes and manages projects and tests new ideas, has a profound impact on all of its “customers”, influencing staff morale and residents’ reactions. Lean Innovation is a set of rapid customer-focused, evidence-based behaviors that help remove the waste and uncertainty in how we create value and solve problems for those we serve.

Over the past couple years working with cities around the country to increase their community impact by adopting Lean Innovation principles, we have noticed four key learnings about changing the way local government can work.

Lack of Differentiation between Search and Execution in the Unknown

One barrier we see to deep impact in cities is the tendency to treat every new idea, project, initiative, and program as if it is an execution project. It is tempting to go into implementation mode without pausing to determine if this is a powerful enough priority to fit into existing work and consider what aspects of the new opportunity are execution and search. It is very important that we identify for what we have evidence and confidence (execution) and where there are areas of uncertainty (search).

When we launch heads down into execution mode, we jump into building a solution full of untested assumptions. With an adoration of KPIs/key objectives/strategic priorities, we set measurements and expected outcomes, often tied to employee performance, on solution outcomes that no one even knows how to pull off. We need to expose and deeply understand what we know for sure about our challenge or opportunity, the stakeholders involved, and potential solutions. Cities are execution machines, but this simple activity of pausing before pushing ahead allows cities, staff, and decision makers to shift the conversation from “go build x”, to “should we build x?”.

Spending even just 30 minutes talking about knowns and unknowns is a powerful and easy way to get started. Starting small with a focus on removing uncertainty and learning what you did not know before can become your new metric of success and provide a foundation for empathy and experimentation work. When a city enables conversations around uncertainty it sends a message and ripple that you are a learning and adaptable organization, that failure is not an “f-word”, and it provides a more equitable playing field where best practices, best guesses, pet projects, and council member- and community-driven ideas can be quickly vetted using evidence of what will create the most value. This evidence-based approach reduces risk and potential waste, and uses the right behaviors and metrics, at the right times, for the right projects.

Lack of Empathy and Testing Assumptions

It makes logical sense that when we are creating a solution for people, we should talk to them first and then keep checking in with them to see how the solution is working. While this may be seemingly the most rational process, it rarely happens or happens often with little efficiency or effectiveness. It has been a constant theme in our work that while cities are driven to serve their constituents and other stakeholders, they spend very little time understanding the why behind their constituents and stakeholders’ challenges and co-creating with them. Stakeholders in cities go beyond constituents, but extend to community and government partners, Mayor and Council, and internal staff.

This lack of stakeholder understanding is critical because if we are not creating value for people, they will not participate in our solutions. If a city launches a community app to address potholes and graffiti and no one uses it, there are reasons why. If a city deploys a new internal software solution and it is like pulling teeth to see adoption, there are reasons why. The same is true with each re-organization, new program, and brand initiative that falls flat. Most of the time when projects reap poor or less than desirable results, it is because the key folks that will be most impacted were never or were shallowly included in the process by which it was created and/or implemented. Without taking time to first gain empathy for those we serve, we risk making dangerous assumptions about what will really benefit them.

Similar to identifying what we know (and do not) about an opportunity or challenge, it is imperative to also identify what assumptions we might be making and to consider what must be true for our solution, program, or organization to be successful. In other words, what assumptions are we taking for granted as fact? The majority of early projects with our new city clients either never launch or take a left turn because once stakeholders are involved and listening and rapid learning become our key metric of success, what we thought would work, is not the answer. Untested assumptions are usually at the core of the decision to no longer pursue an idea.

Luckily there are simple and very fast ways to test assumptions and check if the stakeholder is willing to exhibit the behaviors you need to see to create deep impact. We have seen cities that normally form a large task force, spend 10 months of planning, at a cost of $140,000 to investigate a new opportunity, can instead catch an idea early that will not have an impact for the community in just 6 weeks, for about $6,000, with a team of four staff. Conversely, a project that had been tossed around a city for four years was finally launched with greater impact than imagined in just 8 weeks, at minimal cost, with a team of five. With testing you can learn quickly and gain confidence in “training” up with evidence and confidence about what will and will not work, armed with the data and reasons to back it up. It is about a new way of working, talking to stakeholders, and testing the riskiest aspects and assumptions of a new idea before you launch.

Lack of Prioritization Leads to Lack of Strategic Thinking
One of the biggest barriers that city employees face in pausing to think strategically, quickly identify what is unknown, and efficiently engage stakeholders early and often, is that there is just too much on the plate. Leaders often lack insight into the growing workload and keep adding more while providing little clarity as to what is most important. When employees are overwhelmed by the work exceeding current capacity, they are incentivized to quickly check boxes to get the work off the plate instead of pausing to assess what would create the deepest value and impact. For example, an employee will want to just complete the task on their to-do list of creating an outreach flyer for an underutilized program, rather than pausing to ask if the main reason the program is being underutilized is due to lack of awareness.

It is imperative for cities to empower staff and leverage their collective knowledge, at all hierarchical levels and across silos, to identify what is currently on departments’ plates, prioritize it based on what is most important and impactful, and determine how far down the list the departments currently have the capacity to address. This process allows city leadership to have an evidence-based conversation about the work that is not currently getting done and what to do about it. This process also highlights low-priority, low impact projects so that actions can be taken to move them off the plate, as well as accommodate daily tasks when new projects and other programs are added.

This collaborative process starts with pausing for one day. This pause facilitates important conversations and understanding around what everyone is working on and why, how the current priorities connect to the city’s strategy, where various divisions can better collaborate, and how best to utilize departments’ limited resources. The prioritized projects form the foundation and structure for departments to continually reassess their workload against capacity. Department and city level leadership can then have evidence-based conversations (using the same shared language and process) about what to do about work that is beyond current capacity. When staff have a clear and shared vision into the goals and priorities of the city and their department, and they are asked to engage in conversation that impacts their daily work, it creates tremendous buy-in, positive energy, and hope that the overwhelm they feel can and will be addressed. This creates the space for all employees to think strategically and work in a more customer-focused, evidence-based way.

Change Happens When You Empower, Enable, and Educate Your People

The very best news in these challenges are that there are simple and quick ways to shift behaviors that begin to transform the culture of the city, the department, and work group and it starts with the people that are the heartbeat of the organization. People often say to us, “I’m so sorry that you have work with bureaucrats.” We are always sharing with those presumptive people that we work with some of the most passionate individuals who want to create a great experience for those they serve and improve their work environment. One thing we know for sure is that innovation can come from anywhere and anyone. We have seen people at all levels, from frontline customer service staff to seasoned administrators, become extremely engaged and reignited when they feel empowered to ask questions, and try and test new ways of working. Even when internal staff assume that no one will buy in or change the way they work, they are continually and pleasantly surprised when they see the impact of asking someone for their feedback, to provide solution ideas, and participate in changing the way their city works from the inside out.

You can hear firsthand from two different city change leaders - City of Tucson Office of Innovation & Strategy Administrator, Johanna Hernandez and City of Hayward Management Analyst, Laurel James - about their journey to transform the way their city tackles challenges on June 5th during the 5th annual Governing Summit on Government Performance & Innovation in Minneapolis, Minnesota.