>Are Feds Less Creative?


Contrary to the stereotype, in my observation government employees are just as creative as those in the private sector. The reason they may not seem this way is that they typically think very long and hard about the consequences of any proposed change.

Once an agency has tentatively decided on a course of action, it still takes some time to “go to market” with new ideas, for a few (to my mind) solid reasons:

  • We are motivated by public service. One of the key elements of that is our national security and so we must balance change with maintaining stability, order, and safety for our citizens. In contrast, the motivation in the private sector is financial, and that is why companies are willing to take greater risks and move more quickly. If they don’t they will be out of business, period.
  • We have many diverse stakeholders and we encourage them to provide their perspectives with us. We engage in significant deliberation based on their input to balance their needs against each other. In the private sector, that kind of deliberation is not always required or even necessarily even desired because the marketplace demands speed.

The fact that process is so critical in government explains why IT disciplines such as enterprise architecture planning and governance are so important to enabling innovation. These frameworks enable a process-driven bureaucracy to actually look at what’s possible and come up with ways to get there, versus just resting on our laurels and maintaining the “perpetual status quo.”

Aside from individual employees, there are a number of organizational factors to consider in terms of government innovation:

  • Sheer size—you’re not turning around a canoe, you’re turning around an aircraft carrier.
  • Culture—a preference for being “safe rather than sorry” because if you make a mistake, it can be disastrous to millions of people—in terms of life, liberty, and property. The risk equation is vastly different.

Although it may sometimes seem like government is moving slowly, in reality we are moving forward all the time in terms of ideation, innovation, and modernization. As an example, the role of the CTO in government is all about discovering innovative ways to perform the mission.

Some other prominent examples of this forward momentum are currently underway—social media, cloud computing, mobility solutions, green computing, and more.

Here are three things we can do to be more innovative:

  • From the people perspective, we need to move from being silo based to enterprise based (or what some people called Enterprise 2.0). We need to change a culture from where information is power and currency and where people hoard it, to where we share information freely and openly. And this is what the Open Government Directive is all about. The idea is that when we share, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
  • In terms of process, we need to move from a culture of day-to-day tactical firefighting, to more strategic formulation and execution. Instead of short-term results, we need to focus on intermediate and long-term outcomes for the organization. If we’re so caught up in the issue of the day, then we’ll never get there.
  • And from a technology perspective, we need to continue to move increasingly toward digital-based solutions versus paper. That means that we embrace technologies to get our information online, shared, and accessible.

Innovation is something that we all must embrace—particularly in the public sector, where the implications of positive change are so vast. Thankfully, we have a system of checks and balances in our government that can help to guide us along the way.

Note: I’ll be talking about innovation this week in D.C. at Meritalk’s “Innovation Nation 2010” – the “Edge Warriors” panel.

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