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In Tough Times, Local Governments Innovate

October 03, 2012 By John Anderson, Guest Commentary

Editor’s note: The economic downturn and cuts in state revenue sharing with counties, cities, towns, and school districts have forced local leaders to evaluate how they provide for their communities. The following commentary highlights several cases of creativity in local service delivery. While governments must constantly strive for efficiency and costs savings, Minnesota faces many challenges, and just doing things cheaper isn’t an exclusive solution. We must continue advocating fiscal fairness to adequately fun schools, infrastructure, community services, and progressive health care initiatives. 

Minnesota faces the reality of an aging population, rising health care costs, and an increasing demand for government services with reduced revenue. Big demographic changes in Minnesota’s future, including the retirement of the state’s 1.3 million baby boomers, will continue over the next few decades and will only amplify this trend.

This aging group will require more services, such as increased medical and long term care. At the same, as a larger portion of Minnesota’s population becomes retirees, fewer tax dollars will be available to provide public services.

The Humphrey School’s sixth annual Local Government Innovation Awards recognizes local government efforts at innovation and service redesign to meet these challenges. In addition to recognizing up to 18 local government entities for their innovative work, one awardee will receive a grant of $25,000 to continue its work.

In facing these challenges, many counties, cities, and schools have refused to let the traditional approaches of either increasing property taxes or cutting spending exclusively dictate their responses. Instead, they are also pursuing a third way: innovation and service redesign. The Local Government Innovation Awards recognizes and honors outstanding cities, counties, and schools that demonstrate results in improving local services.

Innovation can be seen in prevention strategies that eliminate the need for a service in the first place. Crow Wing County recently introduced a “release advanced planning” or RAP program in its community corrections system that has helped to reduce recidivism by 70% at its county jail.

Minneapolis Public Schools embraced service redesign and decided to provide Metro Transit passes to over 4,000 high school students this year to increase students’ access to before and after school activities and reduce unexcused absences. The use of incentives and charges can also improve services; recently the City of Chanhassen introduced a new fifth tier in its water pricing for its biggest users of municipal water, while also working to promote water conservation.

Some local government entities have also approached building infrastructure in new, innovative ways. The cities of Bloomington, Eden Prairie, and Edina partnered with the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport Police Department to build a new 28,000 square foot training center called the South Metro Public Safety Training Facility. The cities of Maplewood and North St. Paul recently entered into a joint powers agreement to share recreational facilities, programming and staffing.

There are many more examples of local government innovation happening across the state, and the Local Government Innovation Awards aims to highlight and recognize innovative work happening in Minnesota. In keeping with previous years, up to 18 local government entities will be recognized as award winners for their work.

But there’s also a twist.

This year, Minnesotans can cast their vote to help determine the entrant that will receive $25,000 to continue local government innovation and redesign work!

The Awards has started accepting entries which are open through noon on November 2, 2012. Learn more and begin preparing your entry at

John Anderson is an organizer currently working on the 6th annual Local Government Innovation Awards project sponsored by the Bush Foundation's  InCommons initiative and the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Other project partners include the Association of MN Counties, the League of Minnesota Cities, and the MN School Boards Association.

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