In a time when public pressure for tax relief is immense, even as citizens demand more and better public services, many local officials in Minnesota find themselves caught between service and fiscal responsibility. These dilemmas are often made worse by narrowly prescribed strategies for delivery and improvement of services. When local innovators wonder "what if..." their hands are often tied by existing regulations-and progress in government is stifled.
Recognizing the need for stimulated innovation in the state's local governments, the Minnesota state legislature passed legislation creating the Government Innovation and Cooperation Board in 1993. The Board focuses on improving the efficiency and impact of public services by stimulating productive change in the public sector and streamlining functions across cooperating levels of government. In an effort to capitalize on economies of scale, the Board has encouraged mergers of small units of government (Minnesota has many small city and township jurisdictions), assisting seven successful consolidations as of 2000.
By issuing competitive grants for local governments who develop and implement innovative services and delivery mechanisms, the Board allows local officials to focus on service outcomes without having to adhere to state rules and laws prescribing how those outcomes are to be achieved. As of 2000, the Board had awarded $4,649,319 in grants to 80 pilot projects, which had a sum-projected savings of over $14 million, including over $7 million in recurring annual savings.
The independence of the Board allows it to serve as an effective intermediary between overlapping governmental agencies, avoiding duplication of effort and harmful competition. By providing grants for collaborative efforts between multiple governments and non-profit service providers, the Board has helped to eliminate "turf wars" over which level of government should deliver a particular service.
The Board can also authorize waivers of administrative rules and procedural laws to remove state-imposed barriers to innovation and improved public service. In one case, a local school district that offered a Teenage Parenting Program to help young mothers earn diplomas was threatened with closure by the State Department of Human Service for not meeting their specific requirements for licensing as a child care center. When the district applied to the Board for a waiver, the DHS quickly offered to grant variances from their own rules instead, saving the program from removal.
Over half of the requests for waivers/exemptions brought before the Board have either been approved, resulting in new legislation, or were withdrawn after the state agency enforcing the rule agreed to let the applicant proceed with their program without a waiver from the Board.
While some state officials believe that all efforts to improve the efficiency of local governments should be funded with local tax dollars, most elected officials and bureaucrats in the state appreciate the Board's focus on supporting pilot projects that result in more effective government throughout the state.
Local officials are much more comfortable trying creative approaches with support from state money and recognition; savings in their communities filter back into less need for state-level services. Minnesota already spends over $1 billion per year in aid to local governments, relieving pressure on property taxes. The Board eases this burden by looking for savings and innovation in local government, not simply bailing out existing wasteful programs.