Altoona: Perspectives on “Getting the Work Done”

Posted on October 2, 2019


The Innovation Cohort read Hana Schank’s “Getting the Work Done: What Government Innovation Really Looks Like” as part of their cohort learning. Today’s reflection post is by the the Public Library of Altoona, IA. 


Think small. Failing is fine. Slow down. Listen more, react less. The answer isn’t technology. You have all the experts you need already. Definitely all things that you think of as part of innovation in government, right? Innovation is creating the most positive experience for our residents by relying on the expertise of the people who deliver that service.

We work in an environment where we’re frequently criticized by our “customers” for archaic or ineffective practices. The idea that tech solutions are neither free nor always the answer is met with mistrust. Failure is not acceptable for any reason. How do we innovate in this atmosphere? Focus on the steps involved in solving small problems that may lead to solving bigger problems. Find the people in the organization who want to make change happen, no matter what department they work in. Be willing to make the most simple, basic, and quiet solution the answer. Make mistakes and learn from them. Don’t look for a PR win, look for data based results. From the top down, there must be support for things that may not be a headline hit, but they get the job done.

I work in a department that is threatened by “customer loss”, which is not something that factors into Hudson and Schank’s book. In fact, they state that as part of the problem – that our customers can’t just shop around. In libraries in Iowa, that’s not exactly true, since every Iowan can get a card at any Iowa library and a lot of our funding is based on how many times we serve the public. It’s a little harder to decide to sell your house, get another job, change schools, and uproot your life because you don’t like the way sidewalk inspections are done. However, in philosophy, it is the same thing. We want people to want to live in our city. We want people to want to be proud of where they live. It’s both an economic necessity for growth, and it’s why we do what we do.

Libraries can be a big factor in a pressing and looming crisis in serving the public – using technology to improve service, but serving people without technology. Every day we see it in the library, people can only apply online but they don’t have a computer, they have no idea what their email password is (or if they even have one), and they don’t have any training in computer literacy. One of the most exciting points made in the book is that throwing tech at problems is a problem. We cannot just commission an app (when I told someone at a focus group that yes, I had looked into the app they wanted and it was at least $100,000 to have it developed, the were stunned) to fix it if people can’t use the app. If the best solution is maybe changing a form, or providing a different access point, then splashy tech won’t help. We need to step back, listen, see it as a customer and not an employee, and make whatever change makes sense, no matter how big or small it is.

Innovation is experience being applied in a new, collaborative, deliberate, and citizen-focused ways. It isn’t a title, or an office, or an award. We have all the keys to success, we just need permission and space to use them.

Close window