Angela Hanson January 12, 2017

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Many of us have already given up on our New Year’s’ Resolutions and we are only two weeks into 2017. If fewer than 10% of us are likely to succeed in meeting our individual New Year’s resolution goals, how many of us are likely to succeed in our public sector transformation initiatives, like affordability, open governance, and homelessness? These initiatives must not be treated like fad diets. They are a lifestyle change for government agencies and civil societies. If we treat them like we treat our individual New Year’s resolutions, not only will we not fit into our swimming suits this summer, but we risk damaging the relationship between government and citizens. Individual lifestyle change requires reflection, humility, and grit. In the public sector, it requires a culture of listening (collaborative humility and reflection) and an ongoing cycle of feedback loops (organizational grit).

How might we at the City of Austin Innovation Office keep our resolution to create a culture of listening and continuous feedback loops when collaborators and taxpayers want a set of simple, quick actions to show progress? Here are some things we have learned so far:

  1. Discuss underlying motivations. When we examine individual, group or organizational motivations, we create intimate and trusting relationships between people. Moreover, we understand the kind of person or organization they aspire to be and what “making an impact” does for them personally. That privileged knowledge illustrates what keeps everyone coming back to the table or the whiteboard. Last spring in Austin we embarked on a co-created path to end homelessness. We kept the motivations of downtown stakeholders and service agencies at the center of our conversation by asking participants to share their needs, roles, and priorities within the system we want to affect. This inherently (and intentionally) nonlinear approach enabled participants those with very different values and motivations to see each other clearly. Having conversations early and often – and really listening to to people’s values and motivations – can prevent entrenchment and infighting due to misunderstandings.
  2. Take a deep breath and accept that it’s complex. Managing change either tends to focus on pre-determined, too-specific goals and outcomes (“200 easy-steps” logic model) or abstractly discord (Maybe your boss bounces into a meeting, full of energy, and bursts out “Hello everyone, we are embarking on a strategic change initiative! I have a PowerPoint presentation with the game plan!”) Neither work for a New Year’s resolution. Recently, we tried a new approach. We examined medics’ relationship with self-care and their partners to understand long-term psychological resilience. Instead of writing a 5-year plan to find the answers in 10 easy steps, we sent out a “probe” focused on a short-term need: how to recruit and hire dozens of recently budgeted medic positions.Then, we asked medics “What characteristics do you value in a team member?” as a way to crowd-source qualitative data on resilience as well as how the system around them operates, such as communication channels, political landmines, receptiveness to new methods. We used the system knowledge to design subsequent probes. Once we understood how the interconnected systems work, we modeled a culture of listening by reflecting on, aligning, our new knowledge to the complex topic of resilience.
  3. Break rituals. Doing the same thing over and over expecting different results is definition of insanity, yet we do it all the time in our annual resolutions and in our transformation efforts. Why do we keep waiting for situations to adapt to our expectations? Because it is familiar. In the Innovation Office, encourage vulnerability: asking both staff and external participants what they would change in our facilitation practice. Last year, we incorporated this behavior-modeling, ritual-busting habit our unique approach the Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellows program. Experts from the private sector work alongside civil servants on a shared challenge. And then we ask them to be different: a lived experience helps prevent civil servants from snapping back to old habits. Think of ritual-busting habits as the fitness coaches for resolutions. Safe and familiar places keep us from listening and adapting ourselves and our work.

The City of Austin Innovation Office has been constantly evolving its business model as we navigate the inside of a municipal government administration. Our varied efforts have taught us about the levers and weak spots in the organization and its relationships with the community. This knowledge helps us navigate our collective resolution to create a culture of listening and continuous adaptive management. Our approach formed the basis of our Open Government Partnership Subnational Pioneer commitments to transparency, accountability, and civic participation. But we have our blind spots too and hope that you will point them out. Join our Innovation Community of Practice, share your insights and be our fitness coach!

Angela Hanson is with the City of Austin’s Office of Innovation and serves as an innovation catalyst by configuring people, teams, tools, and methods to generate innovative paths through the complex systems inherent in the domain of public administration. Angela draws on her formal education in ecosystem science from the University of Minnesota, her 5 years of directing and planning Austin’s natural systems as the City’s urban forester, and her relentless curiosity to guide others in untangling and transforming challenges.

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