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The New Normal: Calling on local governments to innovate

Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes, but could just as easily be known as the land of 10,000 ideas. For generations, the state has been a national leader in innovative public service delivery because local leaders have been willing to work together across geographic areas and jurisdictions to find the best possible solutions for citizens.

Local units of government have been at the front lines of Minnesota’s culture of innovation in public services. For example, the state has gone from more than 8,000 school districts decades ago to 336 districts today as schools revise their delivery services to meet modern needs.

Cities, counties and school districts have entered into shared service agreements for everything from police services to information technology and financial management.

Today, the state is facing a “new normal’’ as a number of circumstances are calling local units of government to innovate again as the population increasingly ages, needs for public services grow, the work force changes and the base of taxpayers shrinks.

Renville County Administrator Sara Folsted was one 12 local officials from cities, counties and school districts who provided feedback from the perspective of local officials to “Navigating the New Normal,’’ a guide written by Jay Kiedrowski of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

The guide was collaboratively created to assist local government officials and staff who believe that innovation is necessary within their jurisdictions, but are unsure about how to transform that belief into a successful outcome.

Folsted and others worked on the project in 2009 and 2010.

“I think what we’re getting at with this project in particular with trying to ask ourselves the question are we doing work right and are we doing the right work? So you need to be constantly asking yourself if things are changing … with the new conditions that we’re working under, are we doing the work, (are we) asking the right process-type questions and are we still doing the right work?’’ she said.

“Do we need to be doing things differently or are we doing things that we shouldn’t? Should we be doing something else? So it’s kind of always asking yourself those questions: Do you keep innovating or changing the way you do things?’’

Folsted said many cities, schools and counties are already collaborating or doing things differently, but they’re not always very good at telling their accomplishments.

As an example, Renville County collaborates with Kandiyohi County on public health services. Folsted said there are 20 to 30 collaborations in different areas where officials are trying to leverage resources and provide things better in the region. Law enforcement is another area that comes up quite regularly.

“There’s places that do it county-wide and we do it with Bird Island and we’re starting to pick up some cities as well,’’ Folsted said of Renville County. “That’s an area where — how can you provide service efficiently and still provide good service.’’

Folsted was asked if collaboration means a reduction in cost or improved coordination or both.

“I think it’s both. There might be investment initially to have long-term savings. It takes money sometimes to redesign how you’re doing things,’’ she said.

“If you’re looking at process improvement — that can be immediate savings. But neither one is the total solution. You can only cut so much. You need to improve your process and also improve structural systemic changes in how you do things.’’

Sources: Focus on Outcomes — Redesigning Minnesota’s Local Government Services.

Navigating the New Normal— Minnesota Local Government Innovation and Redesign Guide.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150