(as published in the Woodbury Bulletin 1/4/12)

A phrase you may hear in 2012 is “The New Normal”. It refers to shrinking budgets for all levels of government: global, national, state, city, county and schools. The sooner we accept and adjust to the “new normal” the more successful we will be as a state, a county and a city. Government must do things differently to still achieve the outcomes residents expect. 

On Dec. 6, 2011, we joined more than 40 city, county and school board leaders from across Metro Minnesota to participate in Eagan’s “Local Government Innovation Forum.” The focus: how entities can collaborate and streamline resources making local governments work better for all citizens. Participants also identified opportunities and potential barriers for implementation of new ideas in their own communities.

The event was one of six regional sessions held across Minnesota and was hosted by Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC), League of Minnesota Cities, and the Minnesota School Boards Association in partnership with Minnesota House Redesign Caucus and InCommons. Sessions were held in Rochester, Hibbing, Bemidji, Waite Park, Marshall and Eagan with support from the Bush Foundation and Beyond the Bottom Line.

Attendees were told to brainstorm as a group and then present a feasible solution to a current problem. The floodgates were opened and the ideas flowed freely; after all, most of us are facing similar issues. Our group analyzed how police work, social service administration and technology functions can be combined to cut costs, along with paying only for results with service contracts via performance contracting. We agreed that “service sharing” offers substantial cost savings where there are currently duplicative “backroom” services in human resources, information technology, and office management among the metro area’s 170 cities, seven counties and 347 school districts. Not surprisingly, other groups came up with similar solutions to these common concerns.

Three themes emerged from the conversations: 1) communication is a key part of improving service delivery, 2) collaboration between governments takes time and trust, 3) citizens must be patient to allow good results to emerge. 

Communication with all stakeholders (staff, the public, taxpayers, businesses, other units of local government) is essential to making any change to public service delivery a success. This helps people understand the timing of both implementation and expected results.

Trust is needed, and local leaders must make concerted efforts to have open, candid conversations with all residents and local business owners before pursuing any redesign. This enables taxpayers to understand expectations from changes. Change is easier to accept if people know that in the long run there will be cost savings.

Lastly, turnover among elected officials on any board is a potential barrier to achieving effective redesign. Therefore, it is crucial that managers, front-line staff, and the public, support reforms and continue with the plans (politics aside). It usually takes time before we reap rewards.

Recent examples of local change are the new Market Value Homestead Evaluation, the Linkage Line help with senior living decisions, and Woodbury’s cross training for EMS under Director Guiton. These reforms give local control of tax dollars and potential savings for citizens with no reduction to services.

One of the best ideas for statewide implementation is already in bill form and endorsed by AMC and the Washington County Board of Commissioners. The MAGIC Act (Minnesota Accountable Government Innovation and Collaboration Act or HF1579/SF1340) allows counties to test alternative ways to deliver services. It gained broad bi-partisan support during the 2011 regular legislative session, and we hope it will pass in 2012. 

Minnesotans may save money via a newly formed Sunset Commission. This bi-partisan group’s role is to examine every government agency and determine whether it should continue operating. Their recommendations are due to the legislature by February. 

Government leaders and citizens are encouraged to continue the conversation online at www.InCommons.org or on Twitter @InCommonsTalk and contributing ideas to the conversation at #MnRedesign. Information regarding AMC Redesign projects can be found at: http://www.mncounties.org/redesign/index.htm

Lisa WeikWashington County Commissioner, District 5 – Woodbury
Andrea Kieffer, Minnesota House of Representatives, District 56B