Innovations in Local Government with Brian Kelly, City of Joplin, MO

Posted on February 4, 2016

In this column, Brian Kelly, Joplin (MO) assistant to the city manager, will highlight innovations in local government. He will share experiences from Joplin and cities across the country. He will look at successes and failure in innovation, and offer up some plain off-the-way ideas.

.By Brian Kelly – LinkedIn

After I joined ELGL, Ben DeClue, assistant to city manager in Lebanon, Missouri, welcomed me to the group and suggested ways to get involved. One option was writing a column. This option interested me because it would provide a platform for something that has been on my mind, innovation in local government.  

The potential for innovation in local government is, without a doubt, what makes working in government exciting. Local government has plenty of services that need innovating, and they span every department. City staff work on a wide variety of issues from how to streamline a business licensing process to partnering with a local art group who wants to put art in a local park.

More than likely another local government has worked on the issues that we address each day. The key is to learn from the successes and failures of these governments. Sometimes we can make a few small tweaks to make a solution from another city work for us.

Defining Innovation

To set the framework for this column, I want to define innovation. I set about defining innovation in a couple of different ways. I searched Google and read a few articles about innovation. Before long, it was apparent that every sector defines innovation in a way that is unique to them. For example, a business may define innovation as something new that creates value, as Jeff Dance the CEO of Fresh Consulting, did.

In baseball, innovation may be creating a new play or new system that helps a team win. The St. Louis Cardinals published “The Cardinals Way” book that explains how each position should respond to every possible play and how each player should act on and off the field.

The Local Government Definition

I solicited definitions for innovation from several City of Joplin employees and others working in other local governments. They all provided unique definitions, but with a few common themes.  

Karen Thoreson, Alliance for Innovation, provided the most comprehensive definition which is used by the Alliance for Innovation.

Innovation is “a practice, approach or policy that is new to your organization which produces better results and is relevant, can be sustained and also can be replicated.”

I think this is a great definition. It describes everything that innovation should be. I particularly like the requirement that innovation produce better results.

My fellow City of Joplin employees provided some great definitions with useful insights:

  • “Innovation is the ability to generate a variety of possibilities in order to arrive at a preferred future.”
  • “Innovation is “looking at something I a new way than what we have done in the past.” To be innovative “it is a good idea to get outside input so we do not get trapped into looking at things only through our lens.”
  • “Innovation is adaptive management.”
  • “Innovation is positive change and creative thinking.”

The uniqueness of each definition intrigued me. Each definition touched on important aspects of innovation — adaptive management, positive change and creative thinking. Innovation also provides the possibility of arriving at a preferred, or a mutually agreed upon, future.

A Definition for this Column

After thinking the matter over, I settled on the following definition:321858_10150339206308014_862871572_o

Innovation is a practice, approach or policy that is new to your organization which is meant to produce better results, is relevant, and can be sustained.

As you can see, I took the previous definition and reworked it a bit. I added “meant to produce better results.” I believe that innovative ideas do not have to be “right” or “produce the greatest good.” Of course everyone wants their idea to produce better results, and if they do not, then it is still innovative.

I also took out the stipulation that innovation is capable of being replicated.  Ideally, replication would be possible but it is still innovative if it works for a particular organization.  It may be that a very unique set of circumstances produced the environment that allowed innovation to occur.

Next Steps

I will explore innovative ideas in local government. I will highlight many successful ideas, but perhaps, more importantly, I will provide lessons learned from failed innovation. I will also look into innovative ideas that may not be viewed as innovative by all.

So there we are, we have defined innovation. In the next article, I will highlight the Joplin’s experience with the Center for Priority Based Budgeting, and in particular, the development of the program inventory. Even though we are about a 1/3 of the way through the process, it is amazing the kinds of conversations that are already taking place.   

I want to know your experience with innovation in local government. Overused buzzword? Hard to define? Something we need more of in local government? Send me an email ([email protected]) with your thoughts.

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