Whether you work at the Department of Agriculture, the California State Treasury Office or the Planning Division of the City of San Jose, you have probably encountered the following scenario. You are tasked with solving a problem — say, how to encourage those eligible for food stamps to take advantage of the program, or how to eliminate a sizeable part of the public safety budget without also reducing costs — and you want to investigate possible solutions systematically. But you don’t know what approaches have been tried, the effectiveness of such approaches, or the applicability of those solutions to the specific situation your department and constituencies are facing.
What do you do? Perhaps you begin with a basic Google search. You find some examples that seem like they might relevant. Perhaps you read an article about a town government in another state that consolidated its police department with that of another community, thereby saving millions of dollars a year. The city manager and members of the City Council have good things to say about the arrangement, but you have trouble finding information about obstacles the town leadership faced in implementing the consolidation. Plus, given the difficulties you’ve had collaborating with a neighboring town on a recycling program and what you know about a nearby city’s approach to policing, you’re not sure if consolidation of departments is a good option for your town.
What’s your next step? If you’re ambitious, maybe you find contact information for the city manager in the city that tried the consolidation strategy and ask him about difficulties he faced in the project. Or maybe you send a query to a professional association list-serv asking if anyone can direct you to resources on similar local projects. Or perhaps you bring up the topic at the next meeting of the city managers group to which you belong.
The problem with any of these scenarios is that you have gleaned only limited, generic, or second-hand information from either unverifiable sources or from sources with limited understanding of how the solution will operate in the circumstances you face. For certain types of information — say, creating a new form for renting your agency’s facilities, or determining what icons to use to designate recycling containers — this may not be a problem. But when it comes to government solving tough problems through innovative approaches, strong personal networks are key.
This finding is one of many found in a new report released by the New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation Project. The report summarizes survey and interview data on perceptions of, obstacles to, and motivations for innovation in local government. It assesses how knowledge sharing between locales promotes innovation, and the particular importance of personal networks in facilitating effective knowledge sharing around innovation.
Among the report’s major findings are the following:
Internal organizational or managerial changes to improve service delivery while reducing costs — not e-government, public-private partnerships, or civic engagement projects — are the most important innovations adopted in cities and counties, according to those who work in local government.
Resource constraints both motivate innovation and serve as an obstacle to effective knowledge sharing and the potential for innovation diffusion in local government.
Pressure from elected officials and legislative mandates are more significant drivers than community input for city managers and county administrators when it comes to adopting new approaches.
By far, personal contacts — especially those in geographically proximate communities — are the most valuable source of knowledge for city and county administrators investigating and implementing new approaches
Professional associations are more valuable as knowledge sources for innovation than the individual tools and services (e.g. list-servs, professional development opportunities, webinars, etc.) that such groups offer.
Personal channels are the most typical way that local government staffers share knowledge about innovation with colleagues in other communities.
There are wide divides between urban and rural communities when it comes to perceptions of civic innovation and the ways in which knowledge is acquired and shared.
We hope to start a conversation among various stakeholders at all levels of government in order to develop specific recommendations deriving from this research. What can professional associations do to enlarge and strengthen the personal networks of their members? What can government managers do to communicate their strategies — successes, failures, and aborted projects — to others faced with similar problems? What types of institutional support need to be in place to facilitate such changes? These are the questions that we hope to begin to answer in the coming months. We hope that you will be part of the conversation!
In the meantime, you can download the full report here. We look forward to hearing from you.