Knowledge Sharing Among County Staffers Essential to Spreading Innovation

County staffers have a lot on their plates, especially in this era of under-funded legislative mandates, reduced revenue and budget shortfalls.  It’s hard for most county employees to find time to catch their breaths, let alone investigate new, innovative solutions to long-lasting problems.  Yet when they do implement a new way of doing things — say, a new way of incorporating mental health services into the county prison system, a new incentive system for reducing energy consumption, or the creation of a cross-departmental innovation task force, to name a few examples — the rewards can be great.

But how to innovate at a time when the deck seems stacked against you?  The California Civic Innovation Project (CCIP) of the New America Foundation released a report earlier this spring addressing this question, using data collected from CSAC members.  Its conclusion?  Effective knowledge sharing between local government staffers in different communities is essential to the diffusion of innovation.  And the best way to facilitate knowledge sharing around innovative new approaches in counties is to strengthen personal networks between county staffers.

When relationships between county administrators are already strong, it’s much easier for one executive to pick up the phone and ask the tough questions: What did you do to address this problem?  Where did you encounter resistance?  How much did this solution cost?  What were the political obstacles?  Would you do things the same way if you had it to do over again?  What advice do have you for me?  And would you be willing to collaborate with our county on a similar project?

But the truth is that relationships that allow for this kind of informal and candid exchange are difficult, especially for those who work in smaller, more rural counties, or who have not been in the field long enough to establish strong personal networks of their own.  A follow-up report released this summer by CCIP provides practical advice about how to strengthen personal networks in order to encourage innovation in local government.

There is much that professional associations like CSAC are already doing to facilitate strong relationships and to promote innovation.  But local government staffers, themselves, can also play a role in spreading and accepting knowledge more effectively through trusted sources.  Among the report’s recommendations for county administrators and other staffers are the following:

  • Use Local, In-Person Gatherings to Network — County staffers can use conferences and other in-person gatherings for the hard work of relationship building.  Regional and local gatherings are especially important, as they typically deal with issues of local significance and lay the basis for future collaboration on shared solutions.  Plus, as travel budgets are eliminated, local gatherings are easier to justify than national conferences.

  • Invest in Evaluation — Establishing clear objectives and metrics for success from the outset can help forestall problems later, even if they require an initial investment of time and expertise.  Evaluation of new solutions allows counties to pull the plug on projects that are failing and to share their findings more systematically.  This, in turn, helps to establish a culture that allows for failures, encouraging innovation across the county network.

  • Engage Community Members, not Just Community Groups — Effective innovation networks extend beyond county staffers to the residents they serve.  But too often local government employees use input from community groups as a stand-in for the views of all residents.  This sometimes results in a solution to an unimportant problem, or an approach that is inaccessible or objectionable to many in the community.

County staffers shouldn’t embrace innovation because it is the buzzword of the moment.  But neither should they pass up intriguing new approaches because of a lack of access to information and advice.  Read more about how strengthened networks can play a role in knowledge sharing and the diffusion of innovation.

And please reach out to CCIP with ideas about how to move forward on these recommendations!  We welcome your insights and advice.  Contact Rachel Burstein at burstein@newamerica.org.

About: Rachel Burstein:
Rachel Burstein is a research associate at the California Civic Innovation Project of the New America Foundation.

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