by Arik Bronshtein, cofounder and chief executive officer, UrbanLeap, and Ash Roughani, innovation program manager, city of Sacramento, California

Innovation doesn’t just happen. It’s a process that needs to be managed. Governments around the world, especially those at the local level, are identifying new ways to keep up with the accelerating pace of change. The challenges that governments face today are huge: increasing complexity, limited resources, and growing bureaucracy. In contrast, fast-moving startups have adopted Agile methods that have kept the technology industry innovative, fast-paced, and growing for decades—even as those organizations grow from a couple of cofounders to 50,000 employees. These companies are inventing modern-era technologies that diffuse faster and have (almost) no borders—changing the lives of billions of people around the world.

The influx of new technologies into our lives has two major effects. First, it creates pressure on governments to keep up as residents compare public services and the quality of their experience from these services to the services provided by the private sector. Adopting new tools takes time, resources, and effort. We're at a point in time that governments can no longer afford not to adapt and move faster.

Second, new technologies enable governments to improve processes, reduce costs, and use more data when making policy decisions. Adopting new technologies in a structured way is—in our opinion—one of the main challenges that governments are confronted with today.

Government agencies are characterized by many approval layers that hinder innovation and change. This has led to the perception of governments as slow and inefficient. In contrast, Silicon Valley startups have adopted many concepts during the years that have kept the technology industry innovative, fast-paced, and growing for decades. 

The truth is, governments aren’t slow. In fact, governments often can move faster than the private sector. The problem is, however, that governments often struggle with being able to focus on more than one big thing at a time. How can we improve a government’s capacity to increase operational improvements in predictable cycles and free up resources to develop transformational initiatives? The answer is process.

We can look at a major shift in software development processes. Agile development has steadily emerged as the dominant approach to releasing new features in a continuous delivery environment. That means many of the web and mobile applications you use everyday are improved with hundreds and thousands of changes without you—the user—even noticing. 

Agile methodology has taken the software development world by storm. According to VersionOne’s State of Agile Report (as of 2018), 97 percent of private sector organizations practice Agile in some form. The core principles are adaptive planning, early delivery, and continuous improvement; all with an eye toward being able to respond to change quickly and easily. Diving deeper, Agile calls for more regular collaboration between different stakeholders. 

In an Agile environment, change is the only constant and data drives which changes are kept and which changes are discarded. We are interested in further exploring how similar process transformations can lead to more Agile governance among municipalities. That is, how might communities more systematically adopt processes that guarantee data-driven, continuous improvement? Our hypothesis is that by increasing the number of small, low-cost experiments conducted over a period of time, communities can accelerate the rate of measurable performance improvement in operations and reduce operational costs.

The key word here is: systematically. Without a system in place to support a high volume of experiments, local governments will lack a scalable and repeatable process to deliver results. If they want to manage the influx of technologies and the challenges that are confronted, they must move faster. Lean experiments can help transform vision into facts, discover if something does or does not work, and decrease the risks and uncertainties. When running pilot programs, there are significant lessons, even in failures, because the purpose of a pilot is to learn. 

We believe that the management of services will become an increasingly exciting field over the coming years. With resident expectations changing, it’s only inevitable that public managers will rise to the occasion. As new tools like UrbanLeap are adopted, they will be able to increase local capabilities by using existing resources and enable data to drive decision making. And, most importantly, this increase in capacity will not only improve quality of life for residents but positively impact residents with the greatest needs.

Related content 

From Fragile to Agile: A Smarter Approach to Economic Growth and Vitality. This article from 2014 looks at how communities across the country are using innovative technologies to help governments and agencies become agile by striking a delicate balance among business, talent, and technology to facilitate sustainable growth.

From Data to Decisions: Seven Steps. This 2016 blog post looks at concrete steps communities can take to turn their data into actionable information that can lead to smarter decisions for communities.  

New Research Findings: Participatory Budgeting, Resident Needs, and Data Analytics. This 2018 article looks at some of the latest research from ICMA, including highlighting research on data analytics and participatory budgeting practices. 

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