Innovation. We sure do hear this word bandied about a lot lately. It’s the veritable catch phrase of the moment. We hear it relentlessly in the technology world, where everything from a change on Facebook to a new app to the iPad 2 qualifies as one. (I count roughly 20 new tweets on innovation every five minutes.) But other industries are touting innovation too: car companies innovate on safety and GPS, laundry detergent innovates in stain removal formulas, and of course pharmaceuticals innovate on antidepressants, so we can bear up under all this innovation. And now that the full effects of the economy are being felt in federal budgets (with the afterglow of ARRA worn off), innovation is extolled all around the halls of government.
In fact, there is a new report out dealing with just this: Leading Innovation in Government, published by the Partnership for Public Service in tandem with Hay Group. The report looks at government leaders who create “climates of innovation” and describes an innovation framework based on their observations. The premise is that “for meaningful innovation to occur, leaders [emphasis mine] must create an environment that allows [employees] to collaborate and stretch…” This framework is comprised of nine leadership attributes that make for these innovation climates, specifically in the context of government. The nine attributes are depicted in the diagram below.
The nine are split into three sets of three that make up a triune of what it takes a leader to foster innovation: Self (the leader – the center line of the circle), Team (those working for the leader – on the left), and Other (those the leader and team need to excel and innovate – on the right). This is a simple and compelling framework with which to think about innovation incubation, and it underscores some essential qualities government (or really, any) leaders should have today. For example, the ideas of vision and service (Patriotic Steward) are both fundamental to great leadership, as I have discussed before. Also, in any industry, it is vital to understand the parameters (legal, financial, psychological, etc.) of what can be done, and to have the finesse to negotiate these boundaries as needed (Navigator). Building a robust team and rewarding the practice of exploration and experimentation (which will yield some mistakes) is also critical to good leadership (Team Builder/Mentor). And collaboration cannot be emphasized enough as a direct route to innovation (Collaborator).
The report also rightly points out that innovation in government is a trickier business than it is in either the private or nonprofit sectors. And there’s the rub. After all, we look to government for stability, predictability, for management over the long haul, not flashy, “new and improved” products or services. In fact, the founders created the three branches to ensure this stability through careful consideration of innovations. As a result, the kind of futuring (research and development) required to achieve real innovation is not a priority in most government agencies, and the very notion of “marketing,” needed to bring innovations to implementation, is derided as “too commercial” for government. So, is the old joke about innovation in government being an oxymoron actually truth because that is exactly how we want it?
To consider this part of the innovation question, I would add an outer circle to the report’s framework. If the inner circle represents the individual leader and the qualities they display in creating an innovative climate, the outer circle would represent the larger context in which they are working. And that larger context is government itself. It is made up of the beliefs and values we hold about our government that form its culture – a culture that in many ways currently stymies innovation.
The outer circle represents how we think about or understand our government (a stable, powerful, leading form of democracy for the world), what we expect from it (stability, security, freedom), and what we punish and reward inside it (probably not a lot of experimentation, overall). Given this, it’s mighty challenging to build a culture of innovation inside the very institution from which we demand this kind of predictability, certainty, stability. And I’m pretty sure we can’t (and shouldn’t) expect individual leaders, acting as islands inside the sea of government, to foster this kind of fundamental change in our culture and values. (Although I do believe they should be held accountable for the nine leadership attributes, nonetheless.)
And yet, in this climate of severe economic woe (an external force that too applies pressure), government is being forced to find new ways to deliver that are more effective, that eliminate inefficiency and redundancy, that cut massively into the budgets of last year and the year before. “But,” the report asks, “how can you make cuts without impacting the product or services you deliver to the American people? You can’t,” the report answers, “unless you also find innovative ways of doing business.” So, innovation is needed, required in fact, and government is being dragged into the pace of the change-making business just like everyone else.
Are circumstances changing so fundamentally as to cause us to re-think the role we seek from government? Do we, the American people, really want and need innovation in government, and if so, are we prepared for what this will mean?
I believe for innovation in government to be possible, the people whose government serves them must call for it. Must want it. And for this to happen, we must also be willing to accept what goes hand in glove with it. If we desire a culture of innovation in government, then we must expect there to be mistakes – and ones that will cost us money. (And this may be a fair exchange for money wasted doing the same old things.) We will need to learn to accept some investment as the price for innovation. In other words, we should expect some of what we see in the private sector to take the place of our typical slow-moving, “better safe than sorry” government.
And if we really want innovative government, then let’s be sure to demand and hold government accountable for innovations on the macro scale, simply because I don’t think we want a government that innovates everywhere just for the sake of being innovative (is a new app for payroll what we really are looking for?). We want real innovation, game changing innovation from our government, the kind that provides compelling and simple solutions to complex problems (like those described in the report).
It looks to me like it’s time to have this larger debate. Rather than expecting government to be innovative, when we don’t generally encourage, teach or reward it is kind of like expecting corporations to curb their capitalist tendencies for the sake of community well-being. And isn’t it interesting that there does seem to be some preference these days for government to look more like the private sector and the private sector to emulate government? With this melding of traditional boundaries, it makes it especially challenging for leaders to find just the right balance. So perhaps our ideas about the differences between public and private are changing, and I think that’s good, but what is important is to have the conversation.
As the report says, “Innovation in government does not happen overnight, but it is possible through hard work, dedication and creativity.” To this I would also include a re-evaluation of what we think we want from our government, and at what price that will come. Until then, we can persist in holding up individual innovators as models, but for the most part, innovative government is likely to continue to be an oxymoron.