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A Guide for Innovative Public Servants


A new report offers guidance to government executives and innovators and finds that they are already changing how agencies operate and deliver services.

Released by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, “The Persistence of Innovation in Government: A Guide for Innovative Public Servants” mines data from the 28-year history of the Harvard University Kennedy School’s Innovations in American Government Awards. The author, University of Toronto professor Sandy Borins, seeks to discern how agencies have found ways to introduce innovations in the face of obstacles inherent to the process: the risk of failure, and the extra time, energy, persuasion and improvisation required to bring an innovation to fruition.

Borins finds that innovation is alive and well in government. He illustrates in the report how traditionally hierarchical government agencies can initiate and embrace change, and identifies ways that innovators can succeed within their organizations.

While “innovation” rarely appears in the title or job description of a public servant, Borins finds that many feel the urge to innovate—born of a belief in government as a solution, a belief that government can find better ways to deliver services. The report also finds that innovators are more likely to be strategic planners than adaptive incrementalists. They face bureaucratic resistance, external opposition and funding shortfalls—and frequently must overcome obstacles through persuasion, accommodation and persistence. In addition, innovations originate at all organizational levels and often result from proactive problem solving.

Data from the Harvard University Kennedy School Awards reveal that during the past 20 years:

  • Interorganizational collaboration has increased
  • Both shared and overall funding have increased
  • The innovation agenda has changed in every policy area
  • Media and public interest in innovation have increased
  • Innovations are being evaluated more often
  • Innovations are being transferred more frequently

The report offers numerous recommendations, both for government executives and internal innovators, who can influence an organization to change.  For internal innovators, the report recommendations include:

  • Find and collaborate with kindred innovators
  • Be persistently flexible and flexibly persistent
  • Define indicators and measure progress
  • Recruit fresh perspectives to review the innovation program, and respond to critics

And for government executives:

  • Support local heroes
  • Protect public servants associated with unsuccessful innovations
  • Support performance management systems because they encourage innovative problem solving

The report concludes by emphasizing the importance of partnerships among awards programs, academics and practitioners as key to spurring innovations. Moreover, it calls for continued research on innovation in government.

Borins argues it is crucial to understand trends in innovation more deeply and to identify jurisdictions or organizations that support and encourage multiple innovations over time.

(Image via Lightspring/

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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