Posted tagged ‘innovation in government’

5 Obstacles To Making Your Local Government Innovative

March 5, 2012

In these difficult economic times local governments need to be more innovative in how they operate. Local governments will not be able to cut their way out of their current budget crisis, instead they will have to find ways of delivering services that are smarter, faster and cheaper.

Creativity and innovation are needed in local governments today. Holly G. Green wrote a great blog post recently where she listed ten items that make innovation in any organization difficult. Below I highlight five  items from Holly’s list, which based on my 17 years of experience in government certainly fit and apply to local governments as well.

Here is a modified version of Holly’s list, with comments from me in italics:

1. We’ve always done it that way. When the organizational focus shifts to protecting the status quo, people stop looking for new processes or solutions. When problems arise, people tend to default to the solution that looks most like what has worked in the past rather than exploring new ideas or different ways of doing things. I cannot tell you how many times when I have asked why certain things are done in government the final answer becomes “we’ve always done it that way.”

2. The lone ranger approach. In many companies, one team or small department gets tasked with innovation. That’s like asking a single NASA engineer to develop a new rocket ship to take us to Mars. Innovation requires a combination of skills and talents from all areas of the organization. It does not flourish in isolated silos or hidden corners of the organization. Government offices operate very much as their own silos in many instances. One innovative agency is a great start but an innovative local government it does not make.

3. Failure not an option. Most organizations don’t tolerate failure very well to begin with. And once the mindset shifts to protecting the golden goose, failure becomes anathema to the organization. But failure goes hand-in-hand with innovation. If you’re not failing to some degree, you’re not trying or pushing hard enough. Failure in the public sector needs greater acceptance. Political opponents and the news media make failure tough to bear but I believe the public is more accepting of trying new ideas more than people realize.

4. Weak hires. Hiring people based on politics and not qualifications which is a common occurrence in many local government weakens the overall morale and talent level. As the talent level begins to decline, so do new ideas, new thinking, and successful innovation.

5. Lack of know-how. Employees need to have the appropriate skills and abilities to discover, evaluate, and execute on the best ideas. If you don’t invest the time and money to constantly develop those skills, don’t expect people to innovate on a consistent basis. People need innovation training and they need permission and support from their leaders to be innovative. Most local governments do not provide such training nor do they have a process for obtaining or implementing new ideas.

What do you think of this list? What other items would you add.

Encouraging Innovation In Your Local Government

February 26, 2012

Boston Massachusetts Mayor Thomas Menino has led the charge among urban Mayors for a “new era of shared innovation,”. To back up his push for more innovation in government, Menino in 2010 created the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, to focus on exploring and implementing innovations that enhance City services and operations.

“The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics will help secure Boston’s role as the hub of municipal innovation,” said Mayor Menino. “Boston must find new ways to push the envelope in how we offer services to our various constituents and to make our City and its neighborhoods work better for the families that live here.”

As reported by Nick Judd from TechPresident :

“… Mayor Thomas Menino took two of his most technology-minded staffers — both of whom had years of experience in his five-term administration to match their understanding of new tools and practices — and gave them a mandate to reinvent service delivery in his city. With limited financial resources, the help of a few graduate students, and unfettered access to the rest of the mayor’s cabinet, city advisors Nigel Jacob, a former software developer, and Chris Osgood, a longtime city official, have been given broad ability to pluck innovative ideas from the primordial soup of Boston’s tech, government and entrepreneur communities. Part of their agenda is to open government data, especially if someone needs help extracting a specific dataset from City Hall, but it’s just a small part. When they see an idea they like, they can throw a small amount of city resources behind it and use their positions inside City Hall to get answers and make introductions. And they can form partnerships with outside groups to make ideas into reality.”

“The value that we add is we aggregate risk,” Jacob explained recently. “Our approach has been, if you, Public Works, have something you want to try, but you don’t want it to show up as a crazy Public Works project, you can present it as a New Urban Mechanics project.”

This is as much about communications as it is about results. If a city agency works the way they usually do, issuing a request for proposals that results in a contract with a major firm for a product that has a mammoth price tag, failure is not an option; it’s a potentially career-ending misuse of public money.

The New Urban Mechanics model, on the other hand, is to pick projects with potential, reduce risk by working through partnerships and limited grants, and do as much with connections and savvy as with money. While nobody is expecting any individual product to revolutionize the way the city works, many lightweight projects focused on the same problems just might get more people engaged with city government, and move Boston towards a future where more residents are directly involved in the way the city is run.”

Projects that the Office of New Urban Mechanics has help develop include:

  • Citizens Connect –  A mobile application that allows users to submit service requests for problems like graffiti or potholes directly into the work queue of the Department of Public Works.
  • Street Bump – Drivers can set their mobile phones to automatically detect potholes and transmit location information to the city.
  • Community Plan It- An interactive online game to create engagement around public planning .

The key points to encouraging innovation in your local government:

1) Having a leader who is committed to a new era of innovation

2) Employees and graduate students with permission to be creative and unfettered access to key officials

3) Some financial resources

4) The ability to Form partnerships with organizations outside of government

5) The ability to fail

What do you think about Boston’s approach of creating a New Urban Office of Mechanics to encourage innovation?