How Innovation Spreads

How (and why) do local governments innovate? It’s a question underlying everything we do at Code for America — and yet when answering it, often we rely on intuition rather than data-driven research. But new findings from the New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation Project (CCIP) give us some great insight into the motivations and mechanisms behind civic innovation.

Motivations and Barriers

Based on surveys and interviews with city managers and county administrators from cities throughout California, the report explores how local governments define innovation, the motivations and barriers to adopting new approaches, and how innovation spreads between communities. Some of their findings validated our intuitions, while others were unexpected — it’s all incredibly valuable, and will help us better understand how Code for America can have the most impact.

For example, the report articulated a double-edged sword we’ve often grappled with ourselves: Budget cuts are both an incentive and obstacle to innovation. As cities face rising demand and shrinking resources, they’re pushed to consider new approaches that will allow them to find efficiencies. A Town Manager quoted in the report:

“The fiscal crisis has made us much more open to trying new approaches and looking at innovative ways to solve problems.”

And at the same time, they have less resources (time, human, and financial) to invest in launching new initiatives. Lack of internal capacity was frequently cited as an obstacle to implementing new approaches and often prohibits extensive process overhauls or infrastructure upgrades.

A Need for New Approaches

What we’ve found through our work at Code for America is that this creates a rich opportunity to introduce lean, agile, and data-driven methodologies borrowed from the tech sector. With both a pressing need to find new efficiencies, and few resources to put towards big enterprise overhauls, we’re seeing lots of local governments successfully prototyping, testing, and iterating new processes that lets them do things more effectively.

Louisville, Ken., for example, has experienced great success by using MVP strategies to test out a data-driven performance improvement program in a lightweight way. And after one year of the pilot program, they’ve achieved some impressive results — like lowering the average time to fill a position from a maximum of 304 days to 74 days. Now that they’ve demonstrated the value of the program, they’re investing more resources to expand it.

Other Code for America city partners are now using agile methodologies to manage projects with IT vendors, and getting better outcomes because of it — a distinct shift away from the over-budget, overdue IT contracts that too often result from the traditional vendor management process.

We see a chance for external organizations like Code for America to play a role in driving these new approaches and helping local government build capacity for innovation. We’re working with local officials to provide skills training, identify best practices, and facilitate connections through the CfA’s Peer Network.

The CCIP reported also indicated a need for external groups to build tolerance for risk within local government: “Professional groups and transparency mechanisms can help to promote a culture in which failure is an accepted part of the innovation process and informed and conscious risk-taking prevails.” When done right, like in Louisville, Ken., these managed risks can have huge returns. And if not, it’s better to figure it out quickly through continuous testing and iteration.

Connections Matter

More and more cities are adopting these new innovation processes — and as these practices prove successful amongst early adopter cities, others have been following suit as word spreads. Perhaps most interesting of all, the report found that when it comes to discovering and acquiring practical knowledge about civic innovation, personal connections with peers in other cities were found to be the most valuable source of information:

“Interviewees continually cited this kind of relationship building and peer-to-peer learning facilitated by organizations with connecting ability as essential to the value and effectiveness of professional associations as conduits for knowledge sharing around innovation.”

It’s these kinds of one-on-one connections and spread of innovation — along with capacity building through training and informal knowledge sharing — that we hope to facilitate through the Peer Network. We look forward to seeing more research from CCIP that can help inform our strategy.

Read the full report here.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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Thanks so much for working to integrate the findings into your work at Code for America, Abhi! This is exactly the type of practical use we’d like to see for the report.