Saturday, May 10, 2014

Why Government & Innovation Don't Mix

Art by Barbara Kruger at the Hirshorn Museum in DC. Photo by me.

Of course they can mix. 

But it's not natural. On a routine basis, the term "government innovation" is an oxymoron. Government is defined by rigid and measurable definitions and processes while innovation means defying everything that existed before.

The Partnership for Public Service's  "Federal Coach" Tom Fox was on the news last night talking about 2013 survey results on the topic. He said Feds overwhelmingly try to be innovative but are successively less likely to feel encouraged for the endeavor, or rewarded. 

Agencies know they have to innovate. They also know the bureaucracy makes it almost impossible - culturally and practically. That is why they are creating separate institutional structures dedicated to the function.

We should try to get actual innovation happening. Of course. But to make the transition to a style of government where innovation is routine, we must also ask ourselves what kind of structure is optimal for promoting innovation. And whether the works in progress are helping, hurting or doing nothing very meaningful to make a difference.

On this topic, for me, there is no neutrality. I work in one such office now. But insofar as I can, I hope to share lessons learned as I learn them. (Speaking as myself, not for anyone else, as always.)

The other bias is my cognitive style. I have a predisposition to architecting "the perfect system" when incremental steps forward might be just as good. 

Despite my acknowledged non-objectivity I still believe that innovation requires above all things a focus. Personally the "garage" approach makes sense to me: Go away, make a thing, do a pilot, iterate and mass produce. 

I also think it is important to distinguish apples and oranges. Innovation is not synonymous with operations or mission support functions. It broader than tech. It is not about making employees feel good. But it feeds all of these things. And government has a tendency to fudge boundaries and "just make it work," so things get mixed up.

Yet long-term paid brainstorming in government is not practical. You have to be successful on multiple fronts. Mission, economic stewardship, employee development to be specific. And process matters above all. You have to make it happen in a way that is rational, repeatable, and useful.

Also, government culture isn't warm to constant experimentation, When you change a lot, the ship rocks.

Here is what I do know. We can decompose the innovation process into parts and manage those distinctly - from initiation to completion, feedback and moving a finished product to the showroom floor (the public).

We can pay more people to innovate, to teach the tools and techniques of innovation. 

We can wholesale reduce, automate or eliminate everything that gets in the way - administrivia. 

We can think of government enterprise as a rational, scientific, meritocratic enterprise above all - today's Starship Federation. 

Through a focus on innovation, we can get away from everything that distracts us from our #1 job. Serving the people.

And because we are the government, and are so process-driven, may actually come up with models that are useful to those most comfortable in the garage.

* All opinions my own.

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