The “Before” State
I was asked to lead our Office of Innovation and Sustainability in March of 2020, during a time when most operations in my little corner of the local government world were in flux. Springfield Township is a jurisdiction in Southwest Ohio, minutes north from the City of Cincinnati. With a mostly residential population of approximately 36,000 people, we were seeing cases of the coronavirus increase exponentially daily. While dealing with the first aftershocks of the coronavirus, I took some time to contemplate the new position, research innovation best practices in local government, speak with Kim Bradford from the Alliance for Innovation, and outline my goals for the department and our multi-departmental employee input team (EPIC – Employees Promoting Innovative Change). In June of 2020, I held our first EPIC meeting like most meetings at that time – via Zoom.
After our first meeting, it was clear that the team was enthusiastically researching many interesting ideas to help improve services to Township residents and innovative technology, but it was obvious that the team was focusing too much time on ideas that had little impact on the entire organization and not enough time on “real world” issues that the Township was facing, particularly with all of the new challenges that we were being presented with. Instead of looking at the obvious crisis in front of us, we were working and re-working semi-stale ideas that had no urgency to be implemented.
The Solution: Challenging Normalcy
Looking to the Alliance for Innovation’s website for inspiration, I came across two articles, Antifragility in Local Government, We Can Rebuild It: Better, Stronger, Faster and AFI’s Guiding Principles for 21st Century Local Government. Of course, the newest, biggest hurdle of all were the new challenges posed to our various departments as it was related to the coronavirus pandemic. These two articles could not have been written at a better time for us public administrators trying to maintain operations during one of the largest public health crises we have ever seen. Not only are we expected to continue to provide excellent services to our customers (residents, businesses, visitors, etc.), but how can we take this opportunity to re-examine how we provide these services and provide them in an even more efficient and impactful way?
The coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us small local governments to step into the 21st century, particularly when it comes to technology. Closing our Administration building to the public for some time forced us to move many forms and procedures online, one of the many tasks that we had said we’d always get to, but never managed to have the time (you know how it is). Springfield Township as an organization is one that expects “the best” from ourselves and each other. Using the pandemic as an excuse to not provide services, or not provide them to the quality that we normally do, was not an option. But, the idea of antifragility asks us “how can we provide this service, and even better than we did before?”
Armed with a list of discussion questions, I took these two articles to our EPIC team and asked them to apply them to their various departments. “How has the coronavirus impacted the services that we provide in the Fire Department, and how can we provide them better than we did before?” “Is there a problem in our community that we aren’t addressing, that we should be?” “Does our community trust us? How do we know?”
Outcomes: What happened?
These questions, and others, were a part of the discussion that was held around the antifragile principles laid out through AFI. Not surprisingly, the EPIC team began discussing real, impactful, and implementable ways that we could innovate processes and services that would actually make an impact for our internal organization and most importantly, our customers – the community we serve. Our community was expecting us to continue to show up and be “the best”, even when times were tough. And we did. We began offering services in ways that made sense to our community, not necessarily most convenient for us, or in the way that we had “always done them” in years prior.
If you aren’t familiar with AFI’s AntiFragile principles, now is the time to study them and start implementing them in your organization, while things aren’t “normal”. Do not wait until things have “settled down” and you have more time. You and I both know that “more time” never comes anyway. I would also encourage you to discuss these principles with your teams. You would be surprised at what they know, and what they don’t know. How can you fill in the gaps in their understanding to empower them to think outside of their silos and focus on problems that matter? You can’t afford to miss the opportunity that necessity brings to innovation. Besides, who knows when things will return to “normal” anyway?
For more information contact:
Kathleen Kennedy, Director of Innovation and Sustainability, Springfield Township