Innovating County Government: Internet Hotspots, Training, and Challenge-Based Procurement

By Nora Swidey |  September 1, 2022

In the early days of the pandemic, residents of Cuyahoga County, Ohio who lacked Internet access struggled to get connected in suddenly virtual world. The Cuyahoga County Office of Innovation and Performance responded quickly, setting up internet hotspots across the county.

Catherine Tkachyk has served as Chief Innovation and Performance Officer in Cuyahoga County, Ohio since 2017. Cuyahoga County includes the City of Cleveland and has a population of over 1.2 million people. In her role, Tkachyk oversees the Office of Innovation and Performance, which works with other county departments to improve processes and solve problems. 

Catherine Tkachyk, Chief Innovation and Performance Officer, Cuyahoga County, Ohio

History of the Cuyahoga County Office of Innovation and Performance

The Cuyahoga County Office of Innovation and Performance was founded in 2015, following a $150,000 investment from local foundations, said Tkachyk. After the first Chief Innovation Officer left, the office had a one-year lapse in leadership. Tkachyk came into the role of Chief Innovation and Performance Officer in 2017 and revamped the office’s direction. She was previously working as an analyst at the San Antonio Office of Innovation.

Tkachyk said she was not aware of the field of innovation and government before she landed the job in San Antonio.

“[Working in government innovation] wasn’t really in the plans, but was something that just was a good opportunity,” Tkachyk said.

Though they’re not all called offices of innovation, departments focused on internal process improvements or external technology are becoming increasingly common in major cities, and even midsize cities and counties. 

The Cuyahoga County Innovation Office has a core team of four employees including Tkachyk, and an additional two employees who focus on grant writing. They focus on three goals: process improvement, performance management, and fostering innovation culture. 

Process Improvement 

One of the Innovation Office’s focuses is streamlining government processes. Through the Innovation Academy, county employees receive training in Lean Six Sigma, a performance improvement method, as well as project management and change management processes so that they can establish performance improvements in their own departments. 

“[The Innovation Academy is] actually one of the ways we show our return on investment,” Tkachyk said. 

Since the program launched in 2018, it has saved the county $1.2 million through process improvements. The office runs an introductory class; an intermediate class, which includes a process improvement project; and has started to offer an advanced class in the fall, which will focus on mentoring others. 

Performance Management & Addressing Inequality

Another priority for the Office of Innovation is performance management, which Tkachyk described as “trying to increase data-driven decision making by our departments and using data to establish programs.” 

In Cuyahoga County, about 20 percent of residents do not have internet access in the home. This includes internet access through a smartphone.

“That was a problem prior to the pandemic, but I think the pandemic highlighted it for most folks,” Tkachyk said. 

Given how pronounced the problem became during the pandemic, Tkachyk’s team had to act quickly. 

“We did hotspots … because they were quick solutions that we could implement. [We] partnered with local foundations and paid for hotspots for school students for two years to make sure that they had access to internet,” Tkachyk said.

Now, the office is looking towards long-term solutions. 

“We took a contract to our county council for approval with a local nonprofit called PCs for People. And they are going to build what’s called the fixed wireless system to provide affordable internet,” Tkachyk said. 

The internet will be available at no cost to families 200 percent below the federal poverty line, and will cost $15 a month for anyone else. Families 200 percent below the federal poverty line will also be able to purchase $11 refurbished laptops. The office also partners with libraries and nonprofits to implement digital literacy training programs. 

This initiative to close the digital divide is almost a $20 million investment that, when completed, should provide affordable internet to 25,000 households in the county. Tkachyk cites it as one of the team’s biggest accomplishments so far. 

Standard government procurement doesn’t work for a lot of technology problems. So [this program] lets you use what’s called a challenge-based procurement.

Innovation Culture & Corporate Partnerships

Part of the Office of Innovation’s role is engaging outside innovation through government activities. It works with startups and corporate partners to solve government problems and foster a culture of innovation.

The office’s Startup in Residence programs were inspired by a model from San Francisco. It partners with startups or other companies to solve government challenges. With this model, the office can usually find solutions more quickly than they would with standard government processes. 

“Standard government procurement doesn’t work for a lot of technology problems. So [this program] lets you use what’s called a challenge-based procurement. So instead of us saying, ‘This is the exact solution we want,’ we say, ‘This is the challenge we have.’ Then you can work with a company to co-design a solution,” Tkachyk said.

One success out of these partnerships was redesigning the public records requests process. 

“We had a system that we use with our law department that wasn’t very effective for public records. And we worked with the company to develop a specific public records module within the current software. That’s something that they’re going to be able to sell to their partners, but we actually get it at no cost because we help[ed] them develop it,” Tkachyk said.

Another way the office works with corporate partners is The Lab at Cuyahoga County. It accepts a cohort of entrepreneurs who want to test their products in the county and connect them with local partners. 

“It allows [entrepreneurs] to test out their idea and get more information on the idea they have, or to actually test out their new product or service in a local government setting,” said Tkachyk.

For example, the office coordinated for EvergreenCLE, a company using IoT technology to create and monitor optimal indoor growing conditions, to run a test case of a 9-foot automated growing dome in the Cleveland Public Library. This served as an opportunity for the company to test their product, as well as to facilitate discussion about indoor farming in the community.  

There’s some folks that are always going to say, ‘I don’t know why [the] government needs an innovation office.’ But through our process improvements, and through the work we’ve done, we’ve been able to show the return on investment that the county is getting from having us.

Pushback in Bureaucratic Environments

Tkachyk acknowledges that local government, like most large bureaucratic organizations, is often known for being resistant to change. She said she finds that government work can have a low risk tolerance.

“Especially because we’re using public funds to do it, there’s not a high risk for things that aren’t likely to pan out,” she said. 

While Tkachyk has experienced some push back for her work, she finds that proving the office’s monetary worth has made the value clear. 

“There’s some folks that are always going to say, ‘I don’t know why [the] government needs an innovation office.’ But through our process improvements, and through the work we’ve done, we’ve been able to show the return on investment that the county is getting from having us.” said Tkachyk.

She also finds that the pandemic has made some people more open to change.

“There [were services] that we’ve been pushing things to go online … that we got a lot of resistance to, but with the pandemic, when we had to do it, there was no other option. It kind of encouraged people to engage [online] more and open up and see [that] we could make some significant changes to how we provide services. I would rather not have had the pandemic, but it was also a side benefit of having to change the way we do business,” said Tkachyk.

For other people working in bureaucratic organizations but wanting to make changes, Tkachyk suggests focusing on real problems. 

“There’s a lot of really cool technology out there. There are a lot of really interesting things. But as long as we focus on solving real problems for people, then it directs you in where you want to go and what you’re trying to work on. Otherwise, I think you can jump from the hot thing, one good thing to the next. And you don’t really actually get anything implemented,” she said.