If we want local government to be innovative, we need to address risk
Risk and local government usually don’t mix — and for good reason. Local governments are stewards of the public trust (and the public treasury). But this leads too often to a stagnant approach to necessary change which creates its own long-term risks.
During the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns and social distancing responses, the old processes and ways of serving residents suddenly became a huge risk factor. As staff and residents worked from home and offices were kept closed, the essential community services of local governments were often at an even higher demand and local governments had to work long hours and come up with creative workarounds to adapt. What had previously been seen as the risky new platforms and technologies that only the biggest or most forward-thinking cities were adopting, suddenly became the basic expectation. Those forward thinking cities and counties with robust IT infrastructure to support work-from-home, online permitting, and digital democracy platforms ended up in the best position to navigate the challenges brought on by the pandemic.
What can local government leaders and the startup founders and civic technologists seeking to improve services with new technologies learn from this experience?
First, cities, counties, and any other would-be local government innovators need to first change their mindset toward new technologies. While risk is one aspect of any change, we have to recognize that the status quo has its own risks in a changing world and, more excitingly, that technology and innovation are full of possibility. You can read Mitchell Weiss’s excellent book, We The Possibility, for actionable strategies and case studies on this.
A second critical component is new processes. This means considering challenge-based procurement approaches which have proven to be more accessible to the small diverse businesses leading the way on cutting-edge technologies. This also means considering pilot-project programs that allow entrepreneurs a pathway to fuller procurement while refining their products with local government needs in mind. These processes don’t merely improve outcomes for innovative and diverse entrepreneurs, but they also deliver increased value for the local governments themselves while at the same time saving enormous amounts of staff time.
There are important reasons that technology procurement, in particular, poses additional problems for local governments. For one, the cutting-edge tends to be changing rapidly, making traditional RFP lists of requirements hard to define or quickly out of date. Several small, interchangeable, and integrated technology pieces meeting different aspects of a challenge can provide better and more adaptable outcomes than one large single solution to a comprehensive RFP. Most importantly, the challenges local governments are facing may be best solved from a creative approach their procurement office hadn’t even considered.
The final component is new support for local governments seeking to be innovative. This is the piece that we saw lacking, and so developed a comprehensive innovation program — the inaugural cohort of which is focused on Transportation & Mobility. Together with partners ELGL and e.republic, CivStart’s Government Innovation Program is a free 6-month program that brings together all of these components — new mindsets, new processes, and expert support — in a program designed to give local government leaders education, insight into their challenges, and also a real practical pilot program meeting those challenges.
For the sake of the communities local governments serve every day, we need to rethink our approach to risk. But local government’s don’t have to figure this out on their own. Through these methods and through the CivStart Government Innovation Program, they can lead forward with cutting-edge technologies and improved service, while keeping the peace of mind that comes with possibility, not risk.