On March 11, what feels like a lifetime ago, Arkansas had its first “presumptive case” of coronavirus. One day later, Gov. Asa Hutchinson shut down schools in four counties in the heart of the state. At a time when demand for government services had never been higher, we here in Little Rock’s city government had to figure out how to remain accessible for residents overwhelmed by the global pandemic rocking our community.
We had to do it with unprecedented restrictions to in-person contact. We had to do it fast.
The challenge we faced was a mighty one: How might we provide residents with vital services and manage the city’s highest-ever demand for those services? Further, how might we do that with the confines covid-19 imposed–remaining socially distanced, keeping our people safe and healthy, and taking every precaution possible?
Overnight we had to remodel our entire service delivery away from in-person contact. We knew that technological solutions were possible, but we did not know how the public would react as we figured out how to adapt. We had to jump in with both feet and tweak along the way.
And at first, it was not pretty.
The first public meetings we hosted online were awkward, to say the least. From technical issues with the video and audio to inexperience with teleconferencing software, we had some adjusting to do. But an important lesson we learned from our work with the Centre for Public Impact, a nonprofit founded by Boston Consulting Group, is that failure should be viewed not as an issue to be swept under the rug, but rather as a learning opportunity.
We’re proud of what happened over the following months. We learned, adapted, and improved at a pace more rapid than previously thought imaginable. Since our early failures, we have held city board, planning commission, and police department citizen review board meetings, and are training other departments to deliver services virtually as well.
This culture of learning and continuous improvement has been enabled by a mindset shift we have seen from both the people of Little Rock and those of us working in local government. The public has been very generous and understanding that things might not go perfectly every time. People’s expectations have shifted because they understand the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and appreciate that we have remained open and transparent about our efforts.
Staff make the most of the grace we receive from the public as we transition to virtual services. In the past, there may have been a mindset of “This is too hard to try” or “This has always been done a certain way.” Now we increasingly think: “Let’s try something different” and “How could we do this better?”
For example, the census count posed a critical challenge for us now that we can no longer conduct in-person outreach. Instead of undergoing a long, bureaucratic process to develop a solution, Maricella Garcia, our multicultural liaison, asked, “How might we do this differently?” She came up with an innovative idea very quickly: Equip volunteers who were giving away food boxes to residents with iPads so they can count residents as they collect food.
The people who come to collect food are also likely to not have access to digital technologies needed to complete the census, so making it as easy as possible for them to complete it during food collection made sense. It was also cost-effective, as volunteers were able to assist at minimal cost to the city. It has been very effective: In the first three weeks alone, we reached approximately 600 people who otherwise would not have been counted.
This example represents a shift we are seeing in Little Rock–a shift toward a culture of learning, adapting, and improving at a rapid pace. We view failures as opportunities to learn, and transparently engage with the public to iterate ideas. Through this we can best understand and effectively meet resident needs.
We believe culture change in our government and among our residents will make us a more resilient, responsive local government and a stronger, more connected community.
In January, three departments in the City of Little Rock participated in a research program with the Centre for Public Impact dedicated to understanding what learning from failure looks like in local government. The findings of this research effort, also informed by work with five other municipalities, can be found at tinyurl.com/letsfailforward.
Melissa Bridges is performance and innovation coordinator for the City of Little Rock; Josh Sorin is program director of city innovation at the Centre for Public Impact, a nonprofit foundation that works side-by-side with governments to reimagine government.