In a recent article in Governing (Why Do Cities Struggle to Replicate Best Practices), an argument is made that "best practices" are "rarely replicable" and infrequently "transferable elsewhere." Author Mike Pagano writes, "Cities, urban regions, suburban communities and rural towns have only one thing in common and following a Pied Piper is not one of them. Besides being composed of human beings, cities are unique. As a collection of individuals and firms, they generate their own circadian rhythm. They develop a set of norms of conduct, behavior and expectations. They evolve and adapt to their changing environments. They create social organizations and establish rules, and they create governing institutions that respond to the needs and wants of school-age children, the elderly, commuters, and all other communities of people.
And city governments do all this within a resource constraint. Villages on steep hills are different from the villages on the flat plains. Snow and ice present opportunities to public works departments that sandstorms do not. In many ways, communities and cities often feel similar to other places, but they aren’t exactly the same.
Although there is a lot we can understand about undifferentiated cities by examining the actions of other cities (as the classic studies of Atlanta by Floyd Hunter in the 1950s and Clarence Stone in the 1990s, New Haven by Robert Dahl in the 1960s, and Middletown by the Linds in the 1930s demonstrate), not everything -- and it might be more accurate to say, very little -- can be replicated by another city or town."
A Closer Look at Best Practices
Best practices are undeniably challenging to replicate. Whether the obstacles are due to state, city
and/or county mandates or simply due to the inevitable unique qualities that all local government communities possess, there are few best practice templates that are transferable in an "off-the-shelf" form.
But does the concept of best or leading practices have to be a zero-sum game? Can we accept the fact that these practices, while challenging to replicate, do exist in various forms and are actively being implemented by local governments across the United States and internationally?
To better understand the concept and challenges of best or leading practices, lets look outside the realm of local government. For example, lets look at the automobile industry. All auto owners know that in order to ensure the longevity and premium performance of a vehicles engine, owners should regularly have the oil changed. Changing your car's oil is considered a best practice.
However, there are a myriad of different vehicle and engine types manufactured by dozens of independent companies. There are many different oil grades and depending on the vehicle specs and habits of the driver, many different recommendations on how frequently the oil should be changed. Regardless of the many unique factors that must be considered when determining the frequency an owner should change their vehicles oil, the oil must be changed. It is a best practice and if this practice is not followed vehicles will break down.
Clearly the management and administration of cities and counties is incredibly more complex than performing an oil change, but the conceptual similarities are irrefutable. The auto industry overcame the complexities and obstacles in declaring the oil change a best practice in the face of so many unique characteristics of different types of vehicles and individual driving habits, and so can local government communities.
Cities and counties, like vehicles, have many unique qualities, but more importantly share many more similarities. Instead of focusing on obstacles to best practices, and continuing to rely on the same tired excuses as to why they're not replicable, let's take a look at what all local governments (in general) are in business to achieve. Local governments are all in the business of providing a safe community, operating in an efficient manner, using fiscal resources as efficiently as possible, balancing their budgets, implementing varying levels of citizen engagement and providing efficient services. Not all communities are as successful as others, but they all strive to achieve substantially similar goals. And replicating best or leading practices across communities is not only possible, but is actively occurring. And occurring at a greater and more scalable pace than many believe.
The "Bell Labs" of Leading Practice Research
In 2012, the pre-eminent associations for professional management and innovation in local government formed a partnership to tackle this exact challenge. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) created the "Center for Management Strategies" in partnership with the Alliance for Innovation (AFI) to expand development and dissemination of leading practices to local governments (read more about that here).
For it's role, the Alliance for Innovation, in collaboration with ICMA’s Center for Management Strategies and Arizona State University, performs research, education and technical assistance to disseminate new best, or "leading" practices to local governments. The Alliance and ASU perform the majority of the research while CMS helps local government managers identify and implement leading practices that can address organizational efficiency and effectiveness. The Center delivers the latest research and validated techniques through quality educational programming and expert technical assistance that help local governments deliver high-quality products and services that are valued by their stakeholders.
It is the goal of CMS to bring research, case studies, education and technical assistance to managers who would like to see evidence that these strategies actually work in a local government setting and proven concepts that can be transferred to other jurisdictions that may not have the time or resources to pursue such innovation on their own. In a sense, it is to be the "Bell Labs" of local government innovation.
ICMA's Director of the Center for Management Strategies, Cheryl Hilvert, describes the mission this way: "Today's environment requires us to think differently, approach the work of our organizations in such a way as to engage everyone--including our citizens-- in the work we perform, and look at new and different ways to deliver services.
In the midst of these challenges, ICMA has "stepped up to the plate" to find a way to work with recognized national organizations to bring forward leading practices that can assist local governments in addressing issues in their communities and organizations. Within this innovative framework, the Center for Management Strategies was born. The goal here is to not make you "reinvent the wheel" when issues confront you, but instead to make available education and technical assistance to you on leading practices that have been proven to work through academic research and by "early innovators" in our profession." (Read the entire blog here).
Three basic criteria have been established to define what it means to be a "leading practice."
1.) Scalability - the practice must demonstrate that it has worked in local governments of all sizes, large and small.
2.) Methodology - the practice must have a process involved that can be followed and replicated to achieve success.
3.) Proven Results - there must be evidence that the practice leads to results.
Through this collaboration, CMS has so far identified five core "leading practices" that have proven to be effective, scalable, replicable and transferable across all sizes and shapes of local government. These five core leading practices include:
- High-Performance Organizations
- Priority-Based Budgeting
- Civic Engagement
- Data-Driven Communities
- Collaborative Service Delivery
More and more communities are finding that these best or leading practices can be successfully implemented. And as more communities escape the paralyzing mindset that they are too unique to implement creative and successful ideas and concepts, more and more local government communities will benefit from the replicable "best or leading practices" that have been thoroughly researched and successfully implemented across the country.
Priority Based Budgeting as a Leading Practice
At the Center for Priority Based Budgeting, we are honored and proud that our Priority Based Budgeting concept has been identified as a leading practice by ICMA's Center for Management Strategies. We developed Priority-Based Budgeting in 2009 due to the very fact that nothing else existed within local government public finance that truly is scalable, transferable and effective. And our work in assisting nearly fifty city and county local government communities, of different geographies, demographics and economies, across the US and Canada, successfully implement this best and leading practice substantiates the demise of the myth that little can be replicated across local government communities.
Priority Based Budgeting Case Studies
Case Study — City of Cincinnati, Ohio: Guiding Elected Officials to Policy Questions Using the Resource Alignment Diagnostic Tool
The City of Cincinnati’s use of Priority Based Budgeting (through their "Priority Driven Budgeting" initiative) establishes one of the greatest advancements in the use of the process to guide policy direction. The organization's response to Council’s policy direction provides one of the most comprehensive evaluations of city services across the entire organization.
Many organizations have approached us with a strong desire to bring their elected officials into a constructive and transparent discussion about the budget—Cincinnati has set the bar high in this respect. In the most direct way possible, the City used Priority Based Budgeting to guide policy-oriented discussions. One of the benefits of the process is that it creates specific roles for elected officials to participate and succeed. When elected officials can focus on key policy questions that impact resource allocation, when they’re provided input and transparency in the way their policy questions are answered, and when they can make decisions based on policy impacts, then they’ve played a successful role in budgeting. Click to read more about Cincinnati's Priority-Driven Budget Initiative with the CPBB.
See the full City of Cincinnati, OH "Summit of Leading Practices" slide presentation here.
Case Study — Walnut Creek, California: Achieving Ongoing Sustainability through Priority Based Budgeting
Walnut Creek is one of the earliest implementers of Priority Based Budgeting, having incorporated the process into their culture first in FY 2009–10. Last year, the City spoke about the "sustainability" of the process through changes in leadership – turnover at both the Council and manager levels. This year, the City has reinvented their budget book for citizens, creating a one-of-a-kind, magazine-style Budget Story to reach their citizens in an entirely new way. Presenting the budget as a story is a game-changing leap in creating transparency in local government budgeting. See the full City of Walnut Creek, CA "Summit of Leading Practices" slide presentation here.
Case Study — Douglas County, Nevada: Online Citizen Engagement and Use of PBB in the Bond Rating Process
Douglas County, Nevada has implemented a game-changing approach to citizen engagement. In 2012, the County embarked on the Priority Based Budgeting process with one of the primary objectives being to bring their community into an ownership position with respect to decision making. What unfolded in their groundbreaking use of an online tool to engage citizens sets the bar at a whole new level in participatory budgeting. Not only that, but the County's bond rating was affirmed as a result of their work.
Citizen engagement in the budget process has been increasingly of interest in local government budgeting. The logic follows that the more citizens can authentically contribute and influence the decisions being made by their government, the more ownership they might take in their community. Trust increases with transparency. Compassion comes with trust. The benefits are undeniable.
Still, organizations ask us, "but what about the risks inherent in citizen engagement? What is the right role for citizens?" We're asked, "to what degree is it appropriate, safe, meaningful, realistic and effective to have citizens participate in decision making?" In our work, we continue to strive for answers to these questions—they are the right questions. With the potential for such great outcomes, if we can answer those questions correctly, and involve citizens in more meaningful and influential ways, our communities can achieve everything they hope for!
Douglas County, Nevada has put citizens in the driver's seat of their Priority Based Budgeting process. Special thanks to Peak Democracy—our partners in the development of the "County Budget Challenge." Read full Douglas County, NV PBB and Citizen Engagement study here.
See the full Douglas County, NV "Summit of Leading Practices" slide presentation here.
Case Study — City of Wheat Ridge, Colorado: Ideal Implementation of the Entire Fiscal Health and Wellness through Priority Based Budgeting Model
The City of Wheat Ridge, Colorado is the first community to implement the entire approach to Achieving Fiscal Health and Wellness through Priority Based Budgeting—incorporating the Fiscal Health approach to communicating their financial forecast with the PBB process for resource allocation. Hear from City leaders how the Fiscal Health model changed the conversation with their elected officials, and how Priority Based Budgeting is being used to address the budget.
"PBB is truly more than just a way to address your 'budget woes.' The great thing about Priority Based Budgeting is it can help support the type of culture an organization desires by not simply viewing this process as a budget tool when it is really so much more. PBB is helping us further our culture in areas where we know we have room for improvement. PBB is more than being about the state of your budget, it is about the state of your organization..." See the full City of Wheat Ridge, CO "Summit of Leading Practices" slide presentation here.
CPBB "Summit of Leading Practices" 2013 Conference
Building on the success of our work, and our partnership with ICMA's CMS in supporting other
leading practices, the Center for Priority Based Budgeting held our "Summit of Leading Practices" Annual Conference in July 2013 in Washington D.C. The theme of the conference was chosen for a very specific reason: "leading practices" have been established to set clear directions for local government management and for the sustainability of the communities they serve. We focused a spotlight on these leading practices in order to demonstrate how they work effectively both individually and collaboratively, how they can build upon Fiscal Health and Wellness through Priority Based Budgeting, how they can be a roadmap for any local government that desires to increase efficiency and effectiveness, and how these leading practices truly are scalable, replicable and transferable.
In response to this opportunity, over 150 local government leaders from across the US and Canada attended. Not only were they able to learn about the incredible opportunities available through leading practices from the experts themselves, but more importantly from their local government management peers and practitioners, whom we invited to present, in their own words, how they overcame obstacles in order to successfully implement leading practices in their communities.
Leading cities and counties such as Cincinnati, Ohio, Wheat Ridge, Colorado, Douglas County, Nevada, Lakeland, Florida, Walnut Creek, California, Boone County, Illinois, Tualatin, Oregon and Cary, North Carolina, among others, of different geographies, demographics and economies, all powerfully described how they've successfully implemented one or more leading practices. This is real and true evidence that best or leading practices not only exist, but represent the norm for proactive and innovative communites across the nation.
Solutions and Opportunities through Leading Practices
There is no question that the unprecedented challenges confronting local governments today have required new tools, concepts, practices and solutions, new perspectives to understand our problems, and new ways of doing business. In such an ever-changing environment, where there is no apparent blue-print for economic recovery, the quest to uncover these innovative new practices, to understand why they’ve proven successful, to clarify their repeatable methodologies and disseminate their use has perhaps never been more important.
Therein lay the monumental significance of ICMA’s Center for Management Strategies. Their pursuit of discovering “leading practices” based on the scalability, methodology, and proven results of those practices is the way forward. And while key differences among our geographies, demographics, political environment and economies may complicate the rapid replication and adoption of best practices in local government, let us look to the promise of those leading practices already being implemented with success to witness what is truly possible.
The challenge for all of us, whether working directly for local government or directly working to support the success of our communities, is to once and for all thoroughly digest the fact that we will not simply return to the status quo that existed before the recession. We cannot continue to operate in the same way we have and expect different results. We must do more with less and remain confidently and honestly open to creative and innovative new practices in order to seize the tangible and truly exciting opportunities that exist for local governments.
Local governments now have an unprecedented opportunity to define their future! With the power inversion fundamentally realigning the base of authority back to local government's, the opportunity for communities to confidently define their own destiny has never been greater. And as we've seen through multiple examples captured in the Metropolitan Revolution and the CPBB's Decade of Local Government 2.0, examples abound of thriving communities operating in a results-driven environment of creativity, innovation, performance measurement and efficiency. And more importantly, more and more cities, counties, fire districts, school districts, airport authorities, and other various publicly run organizations are stepping to the plate and embracing the undeniable opportunities that the Power Inversion provides by implementing best and leading practices to independently define their own results-driven futures!