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4 Government Agencies Taking a Page from Startups

Cornerstone Editors

Startups are known for giving the power to the people by encouraging their employees to think big and act on their ideas. The government? Not so much.

In fact, employee engagement in government is at a four-year low of 56.9 percent, according to Best Places to Work data. In order to compete for the best talent against startups and tech companies, some city and federal governments are taking a page straight from Silicon Valley on ways to engage employees and provide meaningful work.

Here, four city and federal groups that are looking to trade bureaucracy for innovation — all in the name of employee engagement.

Obama's Digital Startup

If the Peace Corps was John F. Kennedy's legacy for public service, perhaps President Obama will be remembered for the US Digital Service. Late last year, Obama's administration launched the USDS after stealthily recruiting some of Silicon Valley's top tech talent (and convincing them to take a pay cut).

Their mission? Transform public service delivery in the federal government. The USDS already has over 100 of the top tech minds and is hiring more over the next year and a half to eventually grow to 500. The team acts like a consulting group within the government to help 25 different agencies not only improve, but entirely rethink their IT strategies to ultimately better serve the public through digital services—for instance, upgrading the Veterans Administration's website, so users can access crucial services faster to save time, money and even lives.

Minneapolis Turns to Big Data

The city of Minneapolis took a deep dive into the world of data with the launch of its Intelligent Operations Platform (IOP), an integrated data analysis platform developed in partnership with IBM. The IOP, which allows employees to share data across departments and perform sophisticated analysis, may not be completely groundbreaking on a purely technical level. But it is treading fresh ground in the world of municipal management.

IBM helped Minneapolis develop the platform as part of the company's First-of-a-Kind (FOAK) program, which is also being rolled out in Chicago and Montpellier, France. IBM says the cities should expect to see efficiency gains across various areas, including water and traffic management, but some Minneapolis city employees have already started finding innovative ways to better serve the public, such as tracking bad landlords and modeling the impacts of downtown development.

Boston's IT Refresh

Despite hosting some of the world's most advanced scientific organizations — not to mention a thriving startup scene — the government of Boston's tech capabilities have been less than cutting-edge. Mayor Martin Walsh is seeking to change that.

As part of a wider initiative to upgrade city processes, Walsh created a "Citywide Analytics Team" to act as a central gathering point for information, work across traditional silos and engage city workers around the new tech mantle. One of the team's first tasks was to create a customized dashboard for each city department that deliver real-time data on key departmental functions. City employees say the more efficient, data-driven protocols allow them to better serve citizens and save precious tax dollars.

Denver's Peak Academy

When Denver's Mayor Michael Hancock took office in 2012, he had a daunting $94 million budget shortfall to deal with, but he also had a morale problem after years of city employee cuts. With the Peak Academy, a city-led training program for employee innovation, Hancock helped tackle both issues.

Peak Academy draws its inspiration from Toyota's "Lean Management" theory. The program centers on a voluntary course that teaches city employees how to identify problems in their everyday work and propose effective solutions. The results have been impressive: at least 2,300 employees have taken the course and their ideas, such as speeding up the adoption process for shelter animals and changing postage on city notices, have saved the city $3 million so far.

Besides generating practical solutions, which could have otherwise come from consultants or auditors, Peak Academy helps create a valuable boost in employee morale. Even if employees come up with the same ideas as a consultant, one city manager and program graduate told Governing magazine, "You wouldn't have the same buy-in."

All photos: Shutterstock

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