It’s hard to follow the 2016 presidential election without feeling pessimistic about government. If national polling averages can be trusted (ahem, they can), then the current likeliest scenario is that Hillary Clinton will be our president and a large minority of Americans may believe that she essentially stole the election. It’s hard to imagine how that combination of events will set Washington up for four years of effective governance.
But I actually am optimistic about government. While there’s only one federal government and just 50 state governments, thousands upon thousands of county and municipal governments have a surprising amount of influence over life in America. What’s more, many of those local governments are poised to revolutionize how they do business.
I spent the summer as a graduate intern with Durham County government’s strategic initiatives team – basically, the small group whose mission is to build a culture of innovation in Durham County. Success for them means that employees from across Durham County’s 1,900-person government regularly identify, implement, and test ideas that save time and money, improve outcomes for citizens, and make it more enjoyable to work in the government.
Compared with Beltway dysfunction (and my five years working on Federal issues), it was indescribably heartening to work with a group of people earnestly committed to improving government. But they also faced an obvious challenge: how and where do you begin to build a “culture of innovation”?
To crack that nut, my main summer task was to design and run a full-scale Human Centered Design project. Our starting assumption was that within the organization there were both barriers and opportunities to creating a culture of innovation – and we needed to identify them. HCD is a proven innovation method ideal for that task. I identified a few dozen people from nearly every department in Durham County, and interviewed all of them at length.
I recorded and transcribed these interviews and printed the transcriptions. I cut each transcription up into individual, stand-alone quotes or ideas – more than 500 individual quotes. We then organized these quotes into logical themes and used those themes as building blocks for insights: new knowledge or understanding about Durham County’s government.
I was pleased to discover that the County is poised to begin innovating. Employees across the government already have concrete, low-cost ideas that will materially improve outcomes and efficiency. The major barriers to implementing those ideas were simple: lack of time and resources to innovate. But County leadership values innovation and wants to support it.
Even better, many of the ideas I heard about would be fast and low-cost to implement. In some cases supervisors would merely need to give employees a free afternoon or authorize a small change in procedure.
Finally, what’s most encouraging about the ideas I heard was that many of them will literally pay for themselves in terms of direct cost-savings or by freeing up employee time. In other words, the County is poised to unlock a virtuous cycle of innovation in which new ideas save time and resources that will support even more new ideas.
Though I have not worked with other local governments, I don’t think Durham County is unique. Local governments across the country are beginning to embrace innovation, strategic thinking, and data-driven policy. With the surprising amount of resources local governments deploy each year (more than half a billion dollars in Fiscal Year 2017 in Durham County), these values could make real change.