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The keys to building environmental health capacity: advancements in it and innovation.

Though this column won't be published for a couple of months, I'm writing it as the new year begins. As I look ahead to this year and to the ones that will follow, I find myself returning to what has become a central theme in my thinking about the future of environmental health. If anything, my beliefs are even stronger today that with advances in IT sophistication and innovation, we can build capacity in environmental health even as general fund support for our work either holds steady or declines.

From the editorials I read and the thought leaders I listen to, this idea would seem to be at odds with the majority opinion that argues that additional funding is desperately needed if we are to have any hope of rebuilding capacity in both public and environmental health.

To be sure, if a funding surge for our profession were to take place, I would quickly join my colleagues in a joyous "high five" celebration. I have no plans, however, to buy any party hats. I see nothing within current public-sector funding trends that leads me to believe that a lobbying campaign for more money is anything but a low-probability strategy. And to my way of thinking, investing precious time and money in a low-probability strategy amounts to nothing more than supporting a dead-end endeavor.

A recent story of a failed ballot initiative in Colorado is instructive to understanding where local government and the electorate are with regard to increasing taxes to fund worthy causes.

Politically, Colorado is one of those "interesting" states. It features a strong political "middle" and neither political party can lay claim to owning the state. In short, if a state exists where perhaps common sense could actually prevail over political ideologies, this is probably such a state. On top of that, when political decisions arise that have to do with human capital and even social issues, voters here tend generally to be supportive.

Going into last fall's election, many polls, high-level politicians (like our popular governor and Mayor Bloomberg), and prominent people (like Bill and Melinda Gates) stood behind our education reform ballot issue that aimed to improve the quality, accountability, and delivery of education in this state, particularly in poorer and rural school districts. Aside from the possibility that a small segment of the population might rebel against higher state taxes based solely on principle, it seemed to me that the voters would approve the measure. After all, the relationship between economic prosperity and an educated population is pretty well established. Moreover, Colorado features an above-average educated population. On top of everything else, the opposition spent very little money ($40,000) to try to persuade voters to vote against this initiative. Supporters spent $10 million! I for one thought that surely, this measure would pass easily.

To the surprise of many--myself included--the measure went down to defeat ... by almost a 2:1 margin!

Though this is a very specific story, it is indicative of countless similar such stories unfolding in local government throughout the country. And if this slide into tighter finances can happen here in Colorado where the economy is doing reasonably well and we have a well-educated populace who values human capital, it can happen anywhere . and it is.

Like it or not, local government is fast becoming leaner and meaner from a fiscal standpoint. (Our recent Center for Priority Based Budgeting program also confirmed this development for us.) In my mind, I just can't reconcile this new fiscal reality with a strategy that hinges on gaining increased funding support from state and local general fund budgets.

But there is hope!

Bob O'Neill is the executive director of the International City/County Management Association. Speaking from the standpoint of the professionals who actually run local government, Bob has publicly proclaimed that the next 10 years will be memorialized as the decade of local government. He observes that as federal and state government continues to shrink, more responsibility is falling back to local government. Given the financial challenges facing local government, the only way open for local government to meet these expectations is through (are you ready?!) ... innovation!

On this hugely important conclusion, I agree completely with what Bob is saying.

As I noted in my opening paragraph, I can actually envision a healthy future for environmental health through the pursuit of two much higher probability strategies than the low-odds "dialing for dollars" strategy that is getting most of the ink today.

We have a need to push IT sophistication throughout our profession. This can increase our capacity and even evolve the nature of our work from inspecting to big data analysis, which is more cerebral, less labor intensive, and more high level. Since I have written extensively about this way forward for environmental health, I'll simply defer in this column to previous columns in which I've delved into this line of thinking more deeply.

For the remainder of this column, I'd like to share some thoughts about innovation, which as O'Neil notes, is what local government increasingly needs to excel in.

In addition to Tom Frey, one of my favorite futurists is Daniel Burrus. Burrus writes a lot about innovation, though much of his thinking aims at the private sector. I would argue that a lot of Burrus's ideas are just as applicable to professionals working in the public sector, which is where most NEHA members work.

A recent article by Burrus was entitled, "Stop Competing--Start Winning by Innovating." (For anyone who has read Blue Ocean Strategy, my favorite business book of all time, you'll quickly recognize that that book and this article preach the same theme. Competition is a zero-sum game that features a loser for every winner. Innovation, however, opens up new "spaces" where no competition exists. Innovation is also seen by many economists as the engine that drives creative destruction and the advancement of an economy like ours.)

Given the significance of innovation to economic success, I've long been fascinated with how innovation is celebrated within the private sector but not so much in the public sector. And yet, when we think about Bob O'Neill's commentary, can we possibly think that innovation isn't critical to the public sector as well? The simple truth of the matter is that local government must find ways to innovate if it is to have any hope of responding to the financial challenges it faces and at the same time provide at least a level of baseline services for which our various publics depend on government.

Taking innovation then as a given, the question becomes how can we encourage more innovation among our public sector professions including, of course, those of us who practice in environmental health? Burrus's article gives us some important markers to consider that I am happy to share here.

To begin, Burrus characterizes competers in the following ways, which are markers of what we don't want to do. (I've added my own comments when I couldn't resist!)


* Try to control and direct their people (NF: Don't we often see this in government?!).

* Copy what others are doing (NF: The bane of best practices).

* Get locked into set patterns (NF: Another counter to best practices).

* Believe in standardized operations that force people to act in predictable ways.

* Avoid anything that would cast them as being significantly different from their competers.

* Believe that the future will take care of itself if they take care of the present.


* Cultivate a creative mindset and create new patterns.

* Focus on their future goals and build a path to get there.

* Focus on how to apply new technologies to open up new opportunities.

* Seek to remain adaptive and to use change to their advantage.

* Maximize their differential advantage.

* Empower their people for positive action.

* Realize that people are their most upgradable resource and look for ways to help them be more productive and innovative.

* Go looking for problems that they can turn into opportunities.

* Look for better ways of thinking and acting.

* Look for ways to translate raw data into actionable knowledge and insights.

The full article can be found at bigthink. com/flash-foresight/stop-competing-nil-start-winning-by-innovating.

To summarize, I don't buy the belief that to reverse the trends that are currently causing a downsizing of our profession, our only option is to insist on greater government funding for our programs. I don't buy this because within the current set of circumstances that are dictating government finances, I see nothing that convinces me that government could provide such funding, even if it wanted to.

I do, however, believe that capacity can be built through both the power of IT and innovation.

To that end, NEHA has teamed up with Decade Software to provide the leadership and IT solutions that can enable environmental health to grow and evolve. In addition, NEHA now sponsors an innovation award that serves to encourage the emergence of new and inventive ways for our profession to achieve its important work. We've also planned our upcoming Annual Educational Conference & Exhibition around the theme of innovation and aim to showcase innovation in action in environmental health at our Las Vegas meeting.

Contrary to what some would have you believe, our future can be exciting and bright and even fun as we learn how to adapt to our circumstances and find new and even better ways to succeed. And the odds of success are actually quite good!

Nelson Fabian, MS
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Author:Fabian, Nelson
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2014
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