Innovation in government is often confined to adding new initiatives: established practices and bureaucratic procedures that dominate basic government work are rarely changed. When he was re-elected Louisville's mayor in 1990, Jerry Abramson sought to change this trend by creating an atmosphere in which existing practices and bureaucratic procedures could be rethought and tested for their service to Louisville. To this end, Abramson created CityWork, a program to nourish innovation, improvement, and reinvention of the City's public services.
The program began as a partnership between the City and General Electric Appliances, which employs nearly 9,000 of the City's residents at its local division headquarters. In 1991, GE underwent an extensive organizational restructuring that was initiated by the front-line workers. The success of this private company's restructuring inspired Mayor Abramson to try the model out on his city services.
The program relies primarily on city employees for improvements. In sessions over one to three days, employee-teams meet in carefully structured, problem-solving sessions to analyze the way local government works--how long various activities take, how much they cost, whether current programs serve residents effectively, and the amount of paper work required. At the end of each CityWork session, the teams recommend changes to the mayor or relevant agency head, from whom they receive an immediate answer. The teams then set out to introduce approved changes within 90 days.
By 1995, more than 400 city workers--13 percent of the work force--had participated in CityWork sessions. Efforts have spanned many agencies with impressive results. One team reorganized Louisville's Law Department, generating savings of almost $100,000 annually. Another team redesigned the Parks Department maintenance operations to make more productive use of workers and equipment. CityWork teams have also changed the requirements for promotion in the Police Department and lowered the cost of city fleet maintenance by over $400,000. The diversity of these results indicates the program's strength. Because each session is made up of workers from the division that is being evaluated, the problems and solutions are naturally tailored to each division.
In 1995, CityWork began to include citizens as well as government employees in problem solving. Sessions have covered topics ranging from illegal dumping to management of open spaces. With CityWork, the front-line government employees in Louisville are empowered to take ownership of the services they provide and feel that they have the power to improve problems they encounter in their work. Citizens are enjoying the benefits of increased efficiency in government service and the ability to suggest changes as part of their role in the CityWork session.
CityWork's innovation lies in the recognition of innovation itself as a positive institutional asset. Creating an environment that accepts employee and client feedback as a stimulus to change is a profound accomplishment. The challenge that lies before CityWork, Mayor Abramson, and Louisville will be whether they can maintain this environment long enough so that it can become a permanent fixture of their City's government.