Innovation doesn’t fit into a box

Government is full of boxes. One box is a customer service agent for a department, managing the interaction between government services and the public, another is in finance handling accounts payable and receivable. You have the box of Budget managers, trash collectors, street cleaners and grounds maintenance. These are roles of service delivery and managing processes to assure compliance, accuracy and completion. Government does individual tasks well. So, when government tries to incorporate an internal change-agent, a resident disruptor of the status quo, a leader of innovation, they struggle coming to terms exactly in how innovation is defined or fits into their defined boxes of operation. Therein lies the problem, in order for innovation to be successful in government, they cannot be confined to a box. Innovation occurs across defined boxes, across services, across departments and agencies.

Innovation doesn’t fit into a box of government.

The innovation box must embrace and include the systems approach of thinking AND design thinking. One that transcends the typical bureaucratic government defined roles and operational silos and takes into account having access to all functions of government, not just a small box. An experienced public sector mentor of mine refers to government as consisting of “silos of excellence”, which I believe is fairly accurate. In each box, or silo of government, they function well. I’m not saying it will be the most effective, efficient or timely process, but it will get done…eventually. It is when a project that is focused on modernizing, collaborating, or sharing resources within different government boxes that apprehension occurs. This is one of the reasons innovation is difficult to successfully implement in the public sector. When innovative, creative and progressive projects are in the ideating design phase, a key stumbling block is ownership.

Which box of government is going to be responsible for this project? Who is going to own this project?

This is where the structure, bureaucracy, and operations of government get in the way of progress and innovation. Both departments X and Y would each benefit from the implementation of an innovative solution to operations that would eliminate redundancy and increases efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery. However, shared funding and leadership don’t work well together across different boxes in government. When there is no clear single owner and immediate beneficiary of this investment of money and time, malaise and eventual stagnation occur. Having an outside leader of the project (i.e. Innovator) then leads to the other parties responding with “its not my project, they should do it,” This inevitably ends up being the outside person (the Innovator) that needs to own and lead the project. Problem is, ownership drives effective leadership of innovation projects. If there is no money behind the project, then organizational support quickly dwindles.

Collaboration isn’t necessarily an issue in government, it’s just not structured or organized to function that way. Every party is interested in supporting the project, until the necessary ‘boxes’ have to step up for ownership, funding, and resource support. There is also the issue where a collaborative project that supports the entire organization, becomes labeled as departments X’s project, even though its enterprise wide. It then falls under the typical government box labeling it thus loses its effectiveness and ultimate impact. This sounds juvenile, but when you have department leadership that serves at the will of an elected or appointed authority, putting one’s neck on the line for a joint project becomes risky. Success is achieved by all parties involved and when certain parties do not report or respond to outside leadership (i.e. Innovator) then momentum fades. Therein lies the problem, in applying an innovative approach in government; ownership, drive and momentum is top down.

Without clearly defined executive leadership driving the call for innovation, your project(s) can falter and eventually fail.

Government is a system of systems. HR hires and (hopefully!) trains employees, Budget lays out the funds that make the payrolls possible for current employees and new hires, IT supports the systems and sharing of data for operations of the Finance department that processes taxes as calculated from the Assessors office for both the home building value and property (land) value. This system creates your Real Estate taxes. Applying systems thinking to this process is important in the role of innovation, because any change along this process affects the others. There are few isolated functions in government that do not impact another. Innovators in government take this into account, however they are met with the internal bureaucrats history, previous failed attempts, delays and other negative impacts from working across boxes in government, which severely limit progress. Egos, attitudes, lack of trust, and past failures create a hesitancy to try something else, regardless of it being new or repeated. The system of systems has canabalized its ability to collaborate and innovate.

Design thinking is a paramount function of an influential change-agent innovator. Checklists of tasks, assignments, duties, reports and meetings create an environment of simply “get it done”. Emphasis on details, causes and effects are lost as there is little to no time available to ponder and research. These issues plague government, which is where a internal change-agent, resident disruptor of the status quo, is valuable. Many projects in government are seen as a means to an end, that is a solution to a problem or issue. Too often, the race to complete a task outweighs the realization of results and impact. Projects are often dragged out in the procurement, contracting through legal takes forever, and by the time implementation begins, your selected vendor has had two different project managers assigned due to delays and availability of resources. Then it becomes a race to go-live with the solution and solve the issue that plagued the organization enough to justify this project. Three years ago this proejct made sense, but today it is lost in the race to completion. Thomas Edison couldn’t have simply invented the lightbulb and dropped the mic and walked away victorious. No, he had to create a means in which to provide electrical power to all the homes and businesses for his invention to take root. This required a design thinking approach to assess habits, use, impact, effects, challenges and opportunities for his invention to become a household item. If government were to invent a lightbulb level innovative project today, it would sit idly by, labelled as some accomplishment for a former government employee who has since moved on to greater things. Never once turned on or used to its full ability, because the foresight needed to complete the total project was lost in the time it took to complete. The catalyst, impact and purpose lost in the dregs of bureaucracy. We lose sight of the importance of design thinking because of our obstacles and outdated processes.

In short, the innovators box is defined by many forces and cannot simply fit into the normal titles of government. This is how government has been made to operate and function over the past many decades. This requires the creation, support and release of an internal change-agent, free to roam the “silos of excellence”, to work across defined boxes of government, and to build collaboration across the organization. Its not necessarily by taking the lead on projects, but rather through effectively working across projects, connecting the dots within the operations and structure of government that are too often ignored or deemed irrelevant. Understanding the systems approach of operations and their interconnectedness, combined with an effective look at how those systems will interact with customers, users, businesses, citizens and other organizations from a design thinking pattern to assess functional patterns is required. An innovator is expected to ask a lot of questions, present many possible solutions, recommend different options, and figure out the best and most effective way to identify the true problem to solve and avoid addressing a symptom of a larger undiscovered (or altogether ignored gorilla in the room) to create effective change.

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