Innovation: Beyond the 'Big Bang'

By Eggers, William D. | Government Finance Review, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Innovation: Beyond the 'Big Bang'


Eggers, William D., Government Finance Review


To the average person on the street, "innovative government" is an oxymoron. The private sector innovates while government--bureaucracy's lair--imposes rules and regulations. (In the words of presidential hopeful Barack Obama, Washington is "a place where good ideas go to die.")

It's a myth, of course, that governments do not innovate. They must, in order to address many of society's biggest challenges--from countering terrorism to protecting the environment. Welfare reform and the dramatic reduction in crime in the United States since the mid-1990s both resulted from public-sector innovation.

Yet few government organizations regularly produce innovations. One of the few systematic studies on the subject, by the United Kingdom's National Audit Office, concluded that public agencies approach innovation in terms of one-off change, using the "big bang" approach instead of a series of new approaches that make up a broader process. (1)

Similarly, an analysis of the Innovations in American Government Awards, given by the Ford Foundation and Harvard's Ash Institute, shows that only a handful of organizations appear on the winners list more than once. This suggests that even those organizations doing some of the most creative work in government haven't necessarily created a culture of innovation. (2)

So why don't government agencies innovate more consistently? Why does innovation seem to be so sporadic? To be sure, would-be government innovators must contend with a host of obstacles endemic in the public sector which their private-sector counterparts don't face.

Among these obstacles are a lack of agreed-upon performance measures; judicial and legislative input on operations; skewed risk-and-reward ratios; an inability to make long-term investments if the results will not be realized until after the next election; and so on.

But these constraints don't tell the whole story. The real problem, it seems to me, is that few governments take a systemic view of the innovation process. Attention to innovation tends to be piecemeal, short-term, and narrow--focused almost exclusively on trying to figure out a way to generate more good ideas, address a crisis, or leave a legacy around a specific policy position. This approach has engendered productivity banks, employee incentive programs, innovation program offices, and the like. Sometimes these programs even manage to survive a budget cycle or a change in political leadership.

Such programs are all well and good, but coming up with good ideas is only one component of generating innovation, and often it is not the most critical component. The execution of innovation means developing strategies for each phase of the innovation lifecycle: idea generation, idea selection, idea implementation, and idea diffusion. It's in the last three stages that innovation often goes off the rail in the public sector.

After you generate ideas, you need to select the best ones. How do you decide which ideas are worth pursuing? This question is crucial for public-sector agencies, which often have a hard time defending new ideas in the face of multiple stakeholders with the power to shoot them down.

The World Bank has come up with one of the more novel answers to this question in its Innovation Marketplace. In an attempt to develop new strategies to alleviate poverty, the bank set up a "bazaar" in its atrium, allotting booths to 121 teams, each with an idea to propose. …

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