By Erin Franks,
Earlier this Fall, I had the opportunity to go to Governing magazine’s California Leadership Conference in Sacramento. The theme of the event was innovation in government, from innovative strategies around specific issues such as water conservation, resilience to disasters, or fiscal troubles, to ways to structure government agencies to promote innovation amongst employees. Now government isn’t exactly known for being particularly innovative – in fact, its lack of innovation is often pointed to as one of its main failings. However, innovation in government is even more important now than ever, as cities struggle to do more with less in the wake of the recession. Without some innovative thinking, local government may find itself struggling with cutbacks of vital services.
One panel I attended discussed creative ways governments have collaborated improve their work. Key services such as fire and emergency response are often very expensive, but Yolo County, CA, realized that the county government and all of the separate cities within the county were all working independently on this issue, and as a result were overlapping many of their efforts. Yolo County led the initiative to standardize the operating procedures for the various emergency response teams in their jurisdiction and to design plans that allowed all of the disparate groups to work together seamlessly in the event of a major crisis. In this way, all of the cities and the county were able to maintain the same level of emergency services, but significantly cut their budgets.
Innovation is particularly important at the local level because local governments are often best placed to respond to issues impacting their constituents directly. Many speakers at the conference touched on the issue of inequality, which is especially acute in California. One approach to addressing inequality is helping people learn the skills they need to participate in the modern economy, beginning with basic technology literacy. The Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Riverside spoke about a fascinating program where they provide 8 hours of free computer training to any residents making less than $45,000 per year. In addition, participants receive a free computer at the end of their training. Where does the city get these computers? Local citizens donate their old and broken computers to be recycled, then the city trains at-risk youth to refurbish them. This program not only provides multiple groups of people training directly relevant to the burgeoning tech industry, but it reduces waste and protects the environment!
The California Leadership Conference was a great experience; I met a number of people from all over the state doing really incredible and interesting things that will help their governments work better and more efficiently. I’m looking forward to taking these ideas and lessons back to my job at the Public Utilities Commission, and to think outside the box in my work. I’m particularly excited to look at ways to use data to help decision-making, and to collaborate with different departments to find ways we can work together on projects such as the response to the drought. Hearing what other places have been able to do gives me hope that I’ll be able make a meaningful contribution during my time.