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How the Government is Innovating (And You Can Too)

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Innovation touches every facet of our lives, from transportation to communication, from personnel management to office automation. This is especially evident in the public sector in how agencies provide services and meet their missions. As it happens, technology has enabled much of this innovation, but it also requires smart leaders who apply these technologies and drive change within their agencies.

Weaving Innovation into the Fabric of Government Agencies

Many government leaders have found a way to weave innovation into the fabric of their agencies.  At the federal level, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has hired an “Entrepreneur-in-Chief” while the Department of State has an Office of Innovation that reports directly to the Secretary. Further Maryland is but one state with a Chief Innovation Officer who reports directly to the Governor and ensures that the state government keeps pace with technology, citizens’ emerging needs while using innovative tools to effectively managing government programs and services. The single constant within these examples is that high-level officials are leading the charge to encourage and incorporate innovation within government.  

They are doing so by articulating the value of innovation, fostering a culture of innovation, aligning innovation to mission, defining and measuring success, and distributing innovation.  Further, their efforts are following a pattern of innovation often used in the private sector (where many of the current government leaders have spent some, if not the preponderance, of their careers).

Articulating the value of innovation

The old saw is “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”  What people can intuit is that if they want a different outcome, they need to change their methods.  And the first step is for leaders to explain the value of adopting new methods and new tools.

Through polls and through their behavior, citizens are demanding a government that works differently—a government that encourages citizen participation, shares its information more easily, and delivers services more effectively and efficiently than in the past. Further, citizens do not want to pay more for that government, and most want to pay less.

The only way to accomplish these seemingly mutually exclusive goals is by changing some of the very fundamental assumptions and methods of government operations.  Therefore, the first task for government executives is to articulate how innovation is necessary for the government of the 21st century to serve citizens of the 21st century.

Citizens of this century are different than their predecessors in two critical ways.  First, today’s citizens have access to powerful mobile computing, so individual citizens can create, access, and analyze data at any time, and to tap into their social networks for advice or guidance where ever they are.  Each individual is able to request and consume government services at any time and from any place, and governments need to meet that need.

Second, one result of that access to social networks is that citizens are part of a culture of participation.  The social applications that run on phones, tablets, and now wearable technology impart the value of participation with every shared picture, every request for signers of online petitions, and every opportunity to fund a new prospective product or service before it hits the market.  Governments must therefore make not only their services, but their very operations open to participation at any time and place.

Government leaders must harness citizens’ desire to participate and demonstrate how opening government to that participation can help deliver better services at lower cost.   This is already being done, of course, at many levels: by involving citizens in co-creation, co-production, and co-delivery of services; and by tapping into the knowledge of crowds through programs like the Securing Americans Value and Efficiency (SAVE) Awards.

Fostering a culture of innovation

One of the first tasks for government leaders is to foster a culture that is not only open to innovation, but actively encourages it. Government leaders can develop and invigorate such a culture in a number of ways.

Appeal both to internal and external stakeholders for innovation.  Many mechanisms have been set up at the federal level for public sector employees to offer their suggestions for innovation. All federal employees, for example, may contribute to the ideation platform called the SAVE award, which asks for suggestions on how to save money across the federal government. 

On an agency-wide level, numerous platforms have been established to tap the ingenuity of employees for ways to improve agency operations, including the State Department’s Sounding Board, and HHS’ HHSInnovates.  Both of these programs were established by agency leadership to ask rank-and-file employees for their input in improving or expanding how their agency meets its mission.  Many municipalities have also been looking to the private sector to help them innovate through app contests, while the federal government is currently in the second round of bringing in outside innovators through the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.

Offer incentives for trying, and even more for succeedingThere are many ways for leaders encourage their employees to deliver more than their job description requires of them.  Though money is an obvious incentive, given the fiscal realities of today government executives will have to use other means of motivator staff to be innovative.  Often, simply acknowledging the importance of experimentation and encouraging it is enough to instill the spirit of innovation agency-wide. One effective way to accomplish this would be to include innovation as a routine part of employees’ annual review.  Further, recognizing successful projects goes even further to demonstrate that leadership values the time and talents required to successfully innovate.

Allow people to fail.  Government executives must sometimes provide cover for those who pursue innovation that fails. This is the necessary corollary to encouraging people to try new approaches and recognizing them when they succeed. The catchphrase in the tech industry is “fail fast.” Ideally, people learn from failures, use what they learn to enhance their next attempt, and share the lessons with others, so that each successive attempt at innovation is more likely to succeed. Punishing failure will inhibit innovation.

Create mechanisms for innovation. Many federal agencies have initiated one- off innovation programs, both for internal and external stakeholders.  Programs like HHSInnovates could be replicated across government and then incorporated into each agency’s standard operations.  Innovation programs will doubtless vary from agency to agency and each program should expect to evolve within an agency, employees are more likely to participate fully if they feel that their agency has an enduring interest in innovation.

Institutionalize successful innovationsFinally, after stakeholders have been encouraged to innovate, have been given permission to fail, and rewarded for success, and when they feel that there are opportunities to innovate and the avenues through which they can do so, government leaders should weave meaningful innovations into the fabric of their agencies.   The most cogent example, perhaps never to be equaled, is email.  A tool that few had heard of in the beginning of the Clinton Administration was indispensible before its end.

Aligning innovation to mission

Though it is important to encourage out-of-the-box thinking, it is equally important to ensure that innovations do not distract from an agency’s day-to-day mission.  With new digital tools coming into existence every day, the allure of shiny, new engagement channels never dims.  It is incumbent upon government leaders to act as filters, applying “test for relevance” on proposed innovations before even piloting.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers a good example of this type of “test for relevance” discipline in the way it adopts new social media channels.  In its “New Media Request Form,” the USDA requires offices to specify: why it wants to establish a new media account/channel; what the office wants to accomplish; why the technology is the best tool for achieving stated goals; who the intended audience would be for the new channel; the content and information to be shared and events covered; and the evaluation and success factors associated with launching this new channel.

Defining and measuring success

The final piece is to define and then measure success.  Unlike the private sector, success in the public sector cannot be defined solely through financial data.  Even if costs rise slightly, a program could be successful if it advances other measurable goals such as reaching identified audiences; enhancing transparency; or developing new programs to address emerging mission components, among many others.

For each of these goals, agencies will have to identify specific metrics at the beginning of any innovation programs.  Metrics may include web analytics, volume and relevance of online participation, or metrics that pertain specifically to the agency’s mission: the health of specific populations, for example, or compliance with new regulations.

Distributing Innovation

Paradoxically, for government leaders to harness the power of innovation, they must ultimately unleash the creativity and expertise of the employees in their charge. 

Though some agencies are appointing chief innovation officers, and many more are adding an innovation component to the portfolio of existing CXOs, usually their chief technology or chief innovation officer, ideally the mantle of innovation should be taken up by as many people within the organization as possible.  Innovation can be championed by individuals at any level, but it is most often effective when it is embraced by employees at all levels.

Read the other blog posts on Six Trends Driving Change in Government:

Gadi Ben-Yehuda is the Director of Innovation and Social Media for the IBM Center for The Business of Government. Previously, he was a Web Strategist for the District of Columbia's Office of the Chief Technology Officer. He has taught creative, expository, and Web writing for more than 10 years to university students, private-sector professionals, and soldiers. He has an MFA in poetry from American University, has taught writing at Howard University, and has worked in Washington, DC, for nonprofits, lobbying organizations, Fleishman-Hillard Global Communications, and Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.

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