• Opinion
  • November 22, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 1

Inspector-centred design: innovation where it’s least expected

Opinion: A cooperative approach to reforming work made inspections much more effective

Government innovation transformed Syracuse's property inspections

This opinion piece was written by Samantha Linnett, program coordinator in the City of Syracuse’s Office of Accountability, Performance and Innovation.


“Preparation is key. I can’t stress that enough. Do whatever it is that you need to prepare for your day, whether that’s having a cup of coffee or saying a prayer, and you’ll be able to take on anything.”

That’s how Omar starts his day: coffee and a prayer. Once he gets into the office, he has a more rigorous preparation and inspection process. All the inspectors do.

Innovating inspection

Our office works with city departments to address some of the most ingrained challenges in the city of Syracuse. In the fall of 2016, we began working on improving housing quality. Naturally, this led us to the department that regulates the property code, the Division of Code Enforcement.

In 2016, 93% of health and safety related housing violations weren’t fixed on time. Unsafe and unhealthy housing conditions lead directly to health problems, like elevated blood lead levels, respiratory ailments, and exposure to cancer-causing toxins. The city needed to improve.

We were warned that Code Enforcement was one of the most difficult departments to work with. After decades working for the city, many inspectors were suspicious and reluctant to change.

Be the student

Enter me, a little blonde-haired girl straight out of college with no knowledge about property code. This turned out to be an advantage: it positioned me as “not a threat”. With no knowledge or authority, few of the inspectors thought I was there to take their jobs away — although one asked me if we were replacing them with robots. I was in a perfect position to ask questions, listen and learn.

My work with the inspectors started with one-on-one ride-alongs. I met them in the morning by their desks, then jumped in the car and went out for half of a day’s inspections. Once in the car, they were stuck with me; they had to talk to me. I asked them questions about their process, challenges and their ideas for improvement. The most common response was “you know, nobody has ever asked me that before.”

My mindset throughout the ride-alongs was that they were the experts. They were the only ones who really knew how to improve things. I said this each time, and after a couple of hours the inspectors would start opening up.

I learned about more than their jobs. I learned about their families, beliefs, passions and frustrations. I got to know them as people, not just inspectors, and let them get to know me as a person, too.

Donuts, Lego and crayons

After getting a firm grasp on the inspectors’ process and challenges, we engaged them for solutions. We hosted ideation and codesign sessions to collect their ideas and workshop them into new policies and procedures. At these sessions we provided sugar & caffeine — inspectors love donuts — and had them build with Lego and colour maps to inform new initiatives.

In November 2017, we launched the Tenant-Owner-Proactive (TOP) Pilot for Code Enforcement. Two inspectors were placed into a pilot territory, given data to assist them in proactively inspecting properties, and sent to community meetings to build relationships with property owners and residents. The inspectors identified 46% more health and safety violations, increased communication with tenants and landlords by 31%, proactively identified 115 new cases and increased their compliance rate from 39% to 58%.

During the pilot, we met with our two inspectors weekly to check in, show them their results and make adjustments. They updated the full staff on their progress twice. There was limited pushback because most of the initiatives were originally workshopped by the inspectors. Hearing updates from their colleagues, rather than from our office, helped both with buy-in and trust.

The pilot strategies will be expanded city-wide in early 2019.

There is no shortcut

It takes time to develop the trust and relationships necessary for a successful initiative. We engaged the inspectors for a full year before we launched the pilot. It will have been another year before it expands city-wide.

I learned every inspector’s name. I stopped in when we didn’t have meetings — just to say hi. Whether it’s because they warmed to me or just realised I wasn’t going away, these relationships were central to the initiative’s success. Now, when I walk in the office, I get a room full of inspectors saying “hi Samantha!” — followed by disappointed looks when I don’t have donuts.

You won’t win over everyone, and that’s okay

Not everything was easy, however. We hit several bumps along the way. I like to think of it in terms of a 20/60/20 rule.

About 20% of our inspection staff are eager, passionate, and excited to make change. They became our project leaders. 60% of the inspectors are indifferent to change if they know what to do. We kept them engaged and positive. The last 20% will never buy in, and that’s okay.

Every engagement with the inspectors was optional. If they didn’t want to participate, we didn’t force them to. We updated everyone with coming changes and considered every concern we received. We still had two union grievances filed. We still had to remain agile and change pilot inspectors to address staffing challenges. We still had complications that extended our timeline, and we rolled with them.

They are now the change-makers their department, and city government, needs

In the end, after over a year of building trust and engaging them in co-designing their own work, the inspectors surprised us in amazing ways. They started thinking in terms of solutions, not just challenges. They saw more meaning in their work. They became the department’s face in the community.

They are now the change-makers their department, and city government, needs. — Samantha Linnett

(Picture credit: City of Syracuse)

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