How To Encourage Innovation In Government

Lego Ballista 3

The other day I was urging that we do something or other and got the response: "You're so cutting-edge."

It wasn't a compliment.

In the government, innovation can be scary. But we can do it if we focus on the "how" - meaning the technology platforms we can use to move us forward.

Thinking about technology, rather than the amorphous term "innovation" - which sounds like "new" and "scary" and "untested" and "change" - can help bring people together.

Further, using technology to mediate brainstorming can enable the sharing of new ideas and comments on those ideas. It can help us think scientifically and generate pilot testing rather than leading us down the road of endless whiteboard exercises.

Focusing on technology helps to overcome some of the obstacles that have bogged us down thus far:
  1. We can all agree on the process issue (need to find methods for innovation) but we don't all agree on the specific innovative ideas - eliminates a hangup
  2. Commenting to a computer (and receiving comments via reading a screen) depersonalizes the experience and allows for more objectivity and rationality on both sides - vs. in-person sessions can get hostile quickly if someone dominates the room with ideas, or face-to-face shoots down ideas they think are unworkable
  3. It helps us stay grounded in reality - it's not about the ivory tower of ideas but about progress on the ground
In addition, beginning with technology helps us get around the underlying challenge government has with innovation: The latter is inherently individualistic and therefore disruptive to the large, stable, orderly bureaucracy that government is. In fact individualism is a challenge to any social system that is designed specifically for the masses to rely upon.

The result of a structural framework that encourages stability is that employees who exhibit conservatism and throw up obstacles to change are promoted and rewarded. While those who are impatient with old-fashioned rules are viewed with suspicion.

The logic follows that if you want government reform, you have to create a reform-oriented social environment. For example:
  • Encourage work in small, decentralized units close to the action.
  • Reward innovators through recognition, promotion, bonuses, incentives, speaking opportunities, etc. - hold them up as an example.
  • Give a special award for the best failed experiments each year.
  • Set up Apple-store-style training labs with "Genius" bars where people can drop by for training.
  • Set up reading areas, temporary workspaces, encourage telecommuting, etc.
  • Rotate staff around for professional growth.
  • Design public-private-academic partnerships, etc.
  • Encourage volunteering and participation in community life - it adds to one's sense of personal responsibility and empowerment and reinforces the values of public service.
  • Encourage social networking and social media for productive purposes (in a manner consistent with cybersecurity).
  • Give people time each week just to go off in the woods and think. Or to the gym.
  • Put a suggestion box on every floor.
  • And generally encourage people to be simple, honest and direct about their thoughts and opinions.
Like always, it comes down to the kind of culture you set up and reward.


Note: This post is adapted from a comment I posted on a blog post by Pat Fiorenza at GovLoop. The post was a comment/recommendation of an article on brainstorming at The New Yorker, "Groupthink." Photo by Creative.Paradox via Flickr.
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