Fostering a Culture of Innovation

Innovation can be a divisive word. It tends to be an overused, misapplied, and often confusing term often inappropriately thrown around for any new concept or project. This is especially true in government. One of the key challenges in being an internal change agent within City Hall, is that innovation to most people means more work. It means something new, complicated, and that will ultimately result in changing someone’s comfortable daily routine. A key facet for building an innovative culture in government, is to prepare for this resistance, while fostering an embracing understanding of the true revolutionary motive behind any project labelled innovative: making it work better for those who use it.

Innovation by itself, it just thinking about the same old thing in a new way.

Let me begin by saying that I am a huge proponent of innovation (I mean its in the title I created for myself), but it also has its place of being accepted and rejected. In order for innovation to be successful in an organization, the leadership has to be open to and supportive of it. This means any and all ideas are good in the capacity of innovation.

Innovation is best disguised as modernization.

Most of the innovation projects I have worked on are not truly revolutionary, very few innovations in bare form are. Its how you change the way people use, think and interact with systems and processes that makes them great. Most innovative projects are simple, light and small lifts.

Take fore example, Code for America’s Promptly. Food stamps provide millions of low-income families access to food. A key challenge for this service is that the annual renewal process is often missed by existing customers. After the twelve months of services are expired, the family, which are often transient and moved in the past year or missed the renewal mailing (because who wants to open a letter that looks like a bill), now find themselves void of any or drastically reduced access to food. Customers would find out they expired when at the cash register in a grocery store with food bagged and packed and now no way to pay. Angry, they would call Social Services to complain about not having their benefits only to find out they are no longer registered. Frustrated and embarrassed, the family will now have to go through the entire application process to prove eligibility when the renewal process is incredibly simpler and shorter. Now consider the Social Services employee, redundant work is being tasked on an already overworked and understaffed organization. A hangry family is reapplying for a service they are eligible for and expired is now having to re-apply in-person, downtown, with a frustrated and over-worked Social Services employee. Now enter innovation.

Upon analyzing the problem and situation, Code for America found a solution. The approach of engaging all areas of the process were key to defining the right problem to find the best solution. Throughout the project, interviews with staff occurred, conversations with customers were coordinated, analysis of user information and processes were mapped out, and engagement was inclusive. What did these engagements find out? Customers needed a text messaging communication function for to be reminded to renew their eligible Social Services in the eleventh month. Why text messaging? Because its the most commonly prevalent method of communication across all socio-economic levels. This drastically improved customer service, moral of employees by reducing the number of expired service renewals, and keep services where they belonged — in the homes of the needy. Nothing truly revolutionary. Nothing really changed in the process of service delivery or process. A huge challenge tackled with simple technology. Text message reminders for service renewals.

Why do I think this project, while revolutionary, is more modernizing than innovative? Because of one small fact: text message alerts exist in many other areas, like banking, parking meters, etc. Its not an revolutionary innovative process like Uber or AirBnb, it’s a modernizing of a process long overdue in government that improves customer interaction and communication. Is this project needed? Absolutely! In my opinion, this is needed across all government services and should be the norm expected by customers from all levels of society. Businesses, residents, students and visitors should all expect this level of access and modernized customer service.

So how does an organization foster innovation? Well, this is the complicated part. It took leadership in California to admit there was a problem. It also took them to be willing to let outsiders into their process to find a root cause solution. There is a lot of risk that has to be acceptable to leadership in this capacity of supporting an innovative process to pursuing such a solution such as Promptly. Innovation needs few boundaries. Expectations must be for high impact, not proving a theory correct. Trust is needed that in applying Code for America’s 21st Century Government Principles to a problem will result in transformative solutions. Openness is required to allow for ideas and problem solving to take its rightful place in solving the challenge.

To truly foster a culture of innovation, leadership must be willing to accept the modern process of finding what is truly the cause of a problem and learn the best way to overcome.

This is why I feel there is a misnomer about the label of innovation. My tag-line for my role as a civic innovator is “to apply best practices and new ways of thinking to how government operates.” While the projects I work on may see my role and value added as innovative, they are more often than not, simply modern approaches to problem solving. I find that the biggest role I play as an internal innovator is identifying potential problems usually overlooked, by often applying a solution that is a modern approach done elsewhere. The biggest barrier to innovation in government is the confusion around the role of innovation to the organization. I have yet to complete a project that creates more work for anyone, yet that is always the first fear I face. Most of the applications I have built, projects I have advised, and initiatives I have led have made work easier for people (aside from the IT staff that had to code and build applications and test with me, they had to do more work, but thats also their job so…I don’t feel bad). Most of the work my innovation projects have created for employees was usually in just learning the new way something worked. Most often than not, the solution made their jobs easier or simpler.

I bet the Promptly project was met with suspicious Social Services staff worried that this innovation process was going to find something flawed in their way of working, identify some inefficiency or ineffectiveness in staff, or reveal some hostile gorilla in the corner that everyone ignores. But what did this innovation project truly identify? That a key frustration for Social Services employees was new contract applications for previously existing customers, and that a key problem with customer service was the expiration of services for eligible customers. Thousands of families enrolled for text message alerts and reminders about services. Thousands of time-consuming unnecessary applications were removed from the desks of Social Services.

Innovation Culture Cycle

Innovation just needs a supported place to happen. It needs open engagement from all levels, from all places of the process, and to include all people that are involved, as customers and staff. Innovation doesn’t need a label or title. Leadership needs to see innovation as a necessary risk to take the status quo of service delivery and government operations into the 21st century. The lasting benefit of accepting and supporting an innovative culture in your organization is to see it as a process, not an outcome. Innovation is opening up the new toolkit of problem solving with technology, data, customer centric design, and iterative project development to make drastic changes to government operations. Fostering an innovative culture requires a tolerant and committed leadership team willing to accept this process as necessary to transform government. Its not difficult, its just new. New things can be shiny and fun, or terrifying and scary. Innovation as a process, can create amazing changes to government, but leadership needs to be willing to apply the process of innovation to turn rusty old government into something shiny and new.

Recovering bureaucrat. Pioneered as Civic Innovator. Now serving a second term on City Council in Richmond, VA. Words are my own.

Recovering bureaucrat. Pioneered as Civic Innovator. Now serving a second term on City Council in Richmond, VA. Words are my own.