Athens-Clarke County's Innovation Academy

Athens-Clarke County shares its innovation efforts in their organization. Their innovation story shows how investing in innovation brings positive organizational change and effective solutions to local government. 

ARTICLE | Oct 8, 2019
by Catherine Bennett, Organizational Development Administrator

Athens-Clarke County has shared several things about their innovation efforts in their organization. From dedicated innovation staff and employee engagement and development programs, Athens-Clarke County’s innovation story shows how investing in innovation brings positive organizational change and effective solutions to local government. 


Our new Assistant Manager will keep the organization associated with innovation resources and create initiatives in a strategic way as one of his responsibilities. Additionally, we have another new position: Management Analyst. This position reports directly to the Manager,  and their job will have many facets in supporting the Managers Office, but they will also serve as the Project Manager of Athens-Clarke County What Works Cities (WWC) program. Being a WWC we have access to other resources such as the Behavioral Insights Team, The Government Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School, Johns Hopkins GOVEX, Results for America and Sunlight Foundation. We are currently seeking What Works Certification, a national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven Local Government.

Employee Engagement

Last year we created Athens Peak Academy that we offer to employees through our Organizational Development Department.  This has brought lean process improvement training to ACC employees across the government.

Three years ago, our first group of employees attended the Alliance for Innovation Annual Conference. A core ACC team came back from the conference determined to build an innovation program for our 1600 employees. The program we developed is called the  Innovation Ambassadors. 

This is a select group of approximately 30 high potential employees that have been identified by the Managers Office, Department Directors and nominated by Ambassador Alumni. The program meets 12 times per year., one, two-hour session per month. The diverse group of employees meet with the Managers Office and discuss issues that the Manager’s Office is facing that month. They discuss our failures and successes with the Ambassadors.  This group of employees comes from the middle of the organization and the Managers are very keen to hear their perspectives, observations, and solutions.  The program is semi-structured in that the sessions include:

  • Team Building
  • SWOT Analysis – from their perspective in the organization which is contrasted with the perspective of the leadership team.  There are some very significant differences in perceptions.
  • 10-year Financial Trend of the government
  • Emergenetics Workshop
  • “Shark Tank Day” – This is when Managers and Department Directors pitch a problem statement to the Innovation Ambassadors.  They describe the problem (current state) in a document and come to a session to try and “lure” Ambassadors to spend the next 5 months meeting in “Hives” to determine steps on how to get to the “desired state”.  The IA’s can ask questions during the pitch.  When an idea is being “pitched” the Director cannot determine the solution, only the desired future state.
  • After 5 months of working, “hives” to do a gap analysis. They research what other progressive, innovative governments are doing to address similar issues in their state. If it is a community issue, Ambassadors may meet with people/organizations in the community to find solutions.
  • Graduation- The “hives” make formal presentations of their innovative, out of the box solutions to the problem they studied and researched. The Director who brought the problem forward is at the graduation to hear possible solutions and ask questions to the hive. The Managers Office is present to hear all presentations and ask questions, and of course, the other Ambassadors have questions for the presenters too. We end the ceremony with presentation of an ACC Innovation Ambassador Shirt and certificate.

One of the hopes of the development of this program was to start a Succession Plan and Talent Pipeline for the organization.  It has served in just that way.  4 of our recently appointed Department Directors are Ambassador Alumni. It is a very precious time that these 30 selected employees meet with the Managers Office every month, as it is a rare opportunity for the average government employee. Many of the solutions become adopted by the Departments and sometimes make it to the Mayor and Commission for implementation of the solution.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to build this type of program in your organization, contact:

Catherine Bennett, Organizational Development Administrator

The Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County


C: (706 612-4487

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