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A conversation with Jonathan Koppell: Public service, innovation, tackling wicked problems

Local government is a focus at the Watts College Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, at Arizona State University (ASU), despite an atmosphere in today’s world where public service isn’t always seen in the most positive light.

However, Jonathan Koppell, the Dean of the Watts College, appeared at the 2019 Transforming Local Government Conference (TLG) in Reno, Nevada to share his insights on the school’s public service mission and its commitment to innovation. Beforehand, he sat down with Municipal World CEO Susan Gardner to discuss not only the importance of local government, but how the school and the alliance have forged such a strong partnership.

“The Alliance for Innovation was created some years ago … at the time it was thought a university partner could really add to the meat of the alliance, could help capture the knowledge that is gained. ASU and the school of public affairs immediately said we want to be that partner,” Koppell said. “We devote some of our most precious resources, space, to the alliance. We have created a program … which seeks to have the best and brightest students who aspire to local government come to ASU.”

Introduction to public service

The school, Koppell said, takes “a broad view of public service,” in that it doesn’t necessary equal government service. Indeed, many of the pathways students choose don’t involve government service, but rather service to the public.

He also explained was how ASU has a distinct commitment to preparing people for lives of service. In that mission is also the goal of addressing “the most vexing challenges” in a community (i.e., homelessness, human traffic, a lack of trust between the public and the police, etc.).

Innovation with room for failure

When it comes to the idea of innovation, Koppell said ASU is focused on action and taking risk. Necessity being the mother of invention, he also explained it’s important to build a culture that focuses on daily innovation. However, there also needs to be a space for failure.

“If you’re thinking about a culture that allows for innovation you have to create space for failure. There’s no other way. That’s really hard to do in the government sector … but you have to be willing to do that and build a constituency that supports your latitude to fail,” said Koppel, who was quick to add that spirit can never rest. “I’ve come to realize you will never be done. You can never say, we’ve innovated a lot the last five years, let’s calm down. That has to be the pulse of the organization. There is no such thing as taking a pause.”

✯ Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in the article: Getting to innovation in municipal government. Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.


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