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Voting for Innovation

How NewBoCo’s Intrapreneur Academy Helps the Linn County Auditor’s Office
The Linn County Auditor’s office is no stranger to software issues.

“I thought I was done with IT when I left the private sector” said Linn County Auditor Joel Miller. “Turns out I’m right back in it.”

Over the past few years, the Auditor’s Office has faced repeated issues with election and property tax software provided to them by outside vendors. Resolving these issues has been a slow, labor-intensive, and ongoing process.

With a larger, national discussion on election security and confusing (and on-going) changes to Iowa’s voter ID laws looming, “business as usual” wasn’t going to work for Linn County.

So, when they heard Mandy Webber, NewBoCo’s Director of Innovation, give a presentation about Intrapreneur Academy, a year-long training program where organizations of all types learn how to be innovative in a rapidly changing world, they knew they had to be involved.

The Linn County Auditor’s office joined a group of six teams representing a mix of for profit, nonprofit, and government organizations in the first Intrapreneur Academy cohort.

“I was really quite surprised by the eclectic group of organizations that signed up for Intrapreneur Academy, ” said Webber. “We have everything from a small dog treat bakery to Rockwell Collins going through our training program.”

NewBoCo is a nonprofit dedicated to helping kids and adults alike start their innovation journeys.

“As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, we’re a nonpartisan organization,” said Aaron Horn, NewBoCo’s Chief Operating Officer. “Working with the Linn County Auditor’s Office to help all residents of Linn County falls within our mission.”

Introduction to Agile

In Intrapreneur Academy, teams learn about a different competency of an innovative organization each quarter: Agile Mindset, Methods, Strategy, and Culture. The inaugural cohort just finished their first quarter focused on the Agile Mindset, and the Linn County Auditor’s Office is already seeing success.

At its core, “Agile” is a way of thinking about how people do work. It’s a mindset that encourages people to break down big, complicated problems into smaller tasks and to frequently test and evaluate whether the work you’re doing is the right work.

“Linn County Elections is working hard to keep up with current voting technology,” said Rebecca Stonawski, the Deputy Commissioner of Elections. “Using Agile has allowed us to be more successful with our partners in developing iPad technology for the polls.”

During the June primary, the Auditor’s office noticed several configuration errors in software provided to them by a widely-used vendor. In order to avoid a repeat situation in this fall’s general election, they’re testing out an Agile method: weekly development sprint reviews.

In these meetings, the Auditor’s office reviews the progress made on the software with the vendor’s development team. The development team demos new features, and the Auditor’s office can provide real-time feedback on how these features will work in the real world. The development team then adjusts their work based on this feedback to ensure that they’re building the best product for the end user.

“Even though it was pretty uncomfortable at first, we proved that we can do it,” said Miller. “We’re getting ready for another election. We only have about six or eight weeks to get this ready, and even if all the features don’t work by the time we get to the next election, we’ll know what doesn’t work, and we can be ready for that.”

This software won’t be as visible for people voting on election day, but it’s designed to make things easier and quicker for precinct election workers to check in voters — especially important with the recent changes to Iowa’s Voter ID law.

“We are already seeing benefits, and we hope that this will be palpable in the November 6, 2018 general election,” said Stonawski.

New Ideas and Sample Ballots

The Office of the Linn County Auditor’s vision statement is, “Every person engaged in local government.” And because of their involvement in Intrapreneur Academy, they’re brainstorming new ways to make that possible.

“I always feel like elections are a great, big party where nobody shows up,” said Miller.

On average in the past three gubernatorial elections, only 55% of registered voters in Linn County voted.

One idea to change this? Mailing a sample ballot to every household in Linn County.

Mailing out sample ballots isn’t a completely new idea. Several states including Arizona, Maryland, and New Jersey, require that sample ballots be mailed to residents prior to Election Day. Other states, such as Alaska and California, take things a step further and require full pamphlets with candidate statements and more be mailed to each household.

The Auditor’s Office started exploring this idea in a customer mapping exercise in Intrapreneur Academy. During this exercise, the team talked with their customers — voters — about the reasons they didn’t vote in every election. One reason that came up frequently was that voting felt like a “pop quiz” because they didn’t know enough information about all of the candidates on the ballot prior to Election Day.

Iowa Code already requires that County Auditors publish election notices, and Linn County makes a sample ballot available on their website. However, this information doesn’t reach every household. Not everyone reads the newspaper, and fewer people check out the Auditor’s website. In order to reach the largest number of voters, there’s really no method quite like snail mail.

Linn County might not be the only county testing this idea out.

Woodbury County in Northwest Iowa already sends out election location information and absentee ballot requests to every household. After a conversation with the Linn County Auditor’s Office, they’re considering this idea as well.

“We’re exploring adding in sample ballots to the information we already send to voters in our county,” said Patrick Gill, Woodbury County Auditor. “We’re hoping to do this by the November general election.”

If Linn County decides to move forward with this idea, residents can expect to receive sample ballots and absentee ballot requests in their mailboxes this September.

Due to high demand for spots in our first cohort, NewBoCo is launching a second cohort for Intrapreneur Academy this October. If you think your organization could benefit from this year-long training program, please contact us at Spots are filling up quickly!

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