What Holds Back Innovation To Take Off Within The Public Sector?

Let’s acknowledge a couple of facts, so we can carry on.

First, there is plenty of innovation taking place in the public sector. From the adoption of cloud to smart cities movement to advanced data analytics and several other use cases.

Second, the public sector is fortunate to have at its disposal smart and motivated talent that typically joins a career in the public service to make a meaningful societal impact.

This article is not meant to bash government. Far from it, as a public servant myself, I have led and see others lead innovation first hand in government.

So what’s the fuss?

There are systemic issues in how we run public sector enterprises that make it almost impossible for innovation to take deep roots and flourish across a government organization versus championed by a select few ‘innovation leaders’.

I will list 5 (there are a few more) and offer a two-line idea for each:

(1) Government recruits really smart analytical people but then tries to turn them into the ‘walking-dead’. Let me explain. Most individuals who pick a career in analytics/technology space are inherently driven by creativity. Their appetite for imagination has to be fueled with creative space to allow them to make an impact. Instead, government consistently hires such talent and puts them in bureaucratic boxes. Some escape. Some stay for various reasons.

Idea: Create ‘safe’ space for talent to exercise their creativity with a full expectation that some experiments will inevitably fail but give rise to new thinking.

(2) Government treats innovation in isolation. Public sector enterprises can be a complicated beast with several unique business lines. Typically, each department would pursue innovation for the benefit of their specific business. Compounding the situation is within each business line, there would be isolated innovation hotspots disconnected with each other, all serving the same business mandate.

Idea: The most innovative thinking and I would argue the most long-lasting type happens when random collisions routinely take place. Cross-functional teams representing all kinds of departments that jointly tackle an operational or client service area can create magic.

(3) Governments treat innovation as a special skill set. Perhaps tied to technologists. Perhaps tied to the ‘new-generation’ of employees. Perhaps tied to a certain part of the organization. Or worse, perhaps tied to a single leader/team. Such an approach seals the fate of innovation to always have a severely limited impact.

Idea: To innovate should be considered a core competency for any employee in a government organization regardless of demographics, educational backgrounds, functions or any other parameters that segregates talent. Hire people with such an expectation and then give that expectation a chance to flourish.

(4) Governments thrive on consistency. The ability to provide services to its constituents in a repeatable manner is rightly a core strength of public sector. This drives a behavior that looks at every innovation aka disruption as an obstacle to run smooth government operations.

Idea: Drive incremental innovation — if completely transforming public safety for example is the end goal then chunk and sequence out its building blocks. Innovate those areas handful at a time, so disruption is managed at an acceptable pace.

(5) Governments frequently turn to outsiders to inject innovation within their own organization. Technology vendors, consultants, professional services are seen as the drivers and the high cost often associated with procuring such external services prevents public sector from scaling innovation.

Idea: There is no question that the private sector has a major role to play. For innovation to be accepted as a culture forming behavior inside the public sector, innovation must be led and championed by its own employees. Of course, that will make the process somewhat messy and that is good for innovation.

I am inspired by those who are able do so much more with so less…