Understanding local government innovation and how it spreads

Open data, BYOD, data analytics, for many local government’s those innovative ideas aren’t a reality. For many them most important innovations are those that change their bureaucratic processes to improve the way they deliver their services while reducing their costs, according to a recently released report from the New American Foundation.

Rachel Burstein is a research associate with the California Civic Innovation Project which is part of the New America Foundation. She told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER that the same obstacles and motivations for innovation exist at every level of government.

“The relationship between elected officials and those who serve in administrative posts plays a big role in the innovation process both for good and bad,” said Burstein.

How Do You Define Innovation?

“We are typically not hearing from local government administrators that innovation means a product or service but rather service improvements or organizational efficiencies,” said Burstein.


“Cost is a big piece because it illustrates the deep divide that is gong on now. On one side you have commentators outside of government who sometimes perceive innovation one way and would inpose innovation based on a private sector model to the government. But in reality those that work in government are facing very unique challenges. So what is considered unique in government isn’t really new products,” said Burstein.

Risk Aversion

“Risk aversion comes from the particular set of obstacles like cost, responsibility to tax payer and capacity (both time and personnel) that are particularly unique to the public sector,” said Burstein.


“We asked an open ended question about the impact of the downturn in the economy on the government’s ability to innovate. We got a really mixed response. Some said the downturn caused them to hunker down and cut costs, so they don’t have the resources for innovation. On the other hand some people said this has changed the game and they need to find new ways of doing things,” said Burstein. “So the cost factos kind of co-exit and can act as a motivation and an obstacle.”

Organizational Efficiencies

“The government is focused on innovation that creates organizational efficiences not really about re-thinking the relationship between citizens and government,” said Burstein.

Rural, Suburban and Urban

“We looked at the differences between rural, suburban and cities. In some ways it is a good proxy at what can be accomplished and we saw a breakdown in the numbers that those who are early adopters were more likely to be urban. Those who said they didn’t have the capacity for innovation were much more likely to be rural,” said Burstein.

Rural Example

“I talked to one city manager in a very small community that was very under-resourced and he said he would like to do things but in addition to being the city manager, he was also the fire chief, police chief and the head of the parks and recreation department. So for him his big innovation was buying a new truck to assit in garbage pickup. He is not thinking about the types of innovations that Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom considered when he was Mayor of San Francisco. He is not thinking about open data because they don’t even have a website. So it is not that there is a lack of awareness about the possibilities for innovation but there is a real lack of resources,” said Burstein.

People Connection

“Access to innovative leaders, people who have tried it before is very helpful. It is the true form of knowledge sharing,”sais Burstein.

  • You can ask about challenges
  • You can ask it would make sense in my community
  • Ask you about costs
  • Ask about lessons learned

Want More GovLoop Content? Sign Up For Email Updates

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply