Small to medium cities across the nation are in the midst of an innovation crisis. With limited resources, budget constraints, and cyberthreats, the need for continued innovation in local government IT systems has never been more important. They need individual passion and innovative techniques to survive.
“Local governments are like the start-ups of government,” according to Tim Howell. Howell is an IT specialist for the city of Katy, Texas, and he has extensive experience working in local government offices in the State of Texas, including Hutto, Georgetown, and South Padre Island.
Howell spoke with First 5 to give his insight on public sector innovation and how millennials can contribute to the adoption of new technologies and foster a culture of innovation in local government.
Understand the Enterprise
Howell echoed what many mentors tell millennials by suggesting, “Early on in your government career, say yes to as many different tasks as possible, and try getting involved in other departments and duties.”
But this advice is particularly important for millennials in local government. Not only will trying new things give you exposure to skills you will need later in your career, it will also go a long way in fulfilling the organizational mission. Furthermore, because local governments typically have small staff sizes, millennials will be able to step-up and make impactful contributions to the community.
Also, when there are fewer staff members, everybody has to do a little bit of everything. Millennials, particularly those involved in IT functions, will be exposed to any number of unique systems and situations, so it is important for them to have a wide understanding of the people and priorities within the organization. This will help them map new innovations to the mission, goals, and challenges facing the locality, and it will connect them with other people inside and outside the organization.
Be Open to New Technologies
Millennials can contribute to innovation in local government entities by changing the culture, and making the organization more open to innovative initiatives. Howell noted that when he worked in Hutto, Texas, he worked with a small, young team that was faced with a growing population and increasingly complex issues. Therefore, the staff had to be open to new ideas and adopt new technologies to overcome these challenges.
For example, Howell instituted a virtual desktop-like platform to assist police officers in their vehicles, because it was cheaper than buying and maintaining new desktop hardware. He worked with private sector vendors to try out new applications so they could acquire, use and benefit from innovations at a lower cost.
He was an early adopter of numerous technologies that allowed agencies to connect with residents and deliver services online. In South Padre Island, he promoted transparency by implementing an online service that allowed community members to vote and provide feedback on legislative issues from the comfort of their home. Although there were severe budget and resource limitations in the towns Howell worked for, he pushed the local government to become an early adopter of innovations, and the community benefited immensely as a result.
Develop Innovation Strategies and Leadership Buy-in
A good innovation strategy will reflect the priorities and needs of the locality, while leaving room for future adjustments and innovation opportunities. Budget and resource constraints can create a sense of urgency within an agency that pushes them to innovate, but according to Howell, any innovation initiative must have a clear strategy and goal from the onset. “We strategize so many other things, but people just jump in and start trying to innovate. They don’t think about it in the same way, but since there are many components to innovation initiatives, knowing where you want to go helps a long way in the process.”
When millennials help organizations strategize innovation, it is important to keep in mind the nuances of each town or local government. At the same time, some processes and principles are the same regardless of size or jurisdiction. Howell has found, “Every organization’s challenges may be a little bit different, but they all stem from buy-in.” By producing small wins, you can drive passion for new initiatives within the office and prioritize innovation for leadership.
Leaders are beginning to understand that managing innovation and the role of technology in an organization is as critical for government as managing finances or personnel. Once an organization recognizes this, then it is up to IT specialists, like Howell, to nudge leaders towards the most cost-effective and beneficial technologies while acknowledging the ideas and goals that leaders are looking to accomplish.
Millennials with a passion for public service, an understanding of the locality, an appetite for trying new technologies, a strategy for implementation, and leadership buy-in, can truly help innovate local government. These elements, paired with the urgency created from budget and resource constraints, foster a culture of innovation which propels agencies to modernize IT systems and find new, more efficient ways to serve constituents.
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This post is part of GovLoop’s millennial blog series, First 5.