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Reflections on Fostering a Government of Innovation, without Defaulting to a Technological Approach

You’ve surely been dazzled by media stories covering robotics, blockchain, artificial intelligence and digital currencies. As a result, it’s likely that your conception of innovation is that it’s something new and high-tech.

But there’s another type of innovation that’s about improving human interaction, fostering individual and group collaboration, and redefining in leaders’ and workers’ minds those otherwise sticky ideas within organizations that have held those organizations back. While technology is a tool to help catalyze these things, it need not be central to approaches that government can use to innovate.

As Americans, we believe that government is of the people, by the people and for the people. If we want government to improve, particularly in a cost-effective way, it would make sense that focusing on people (and not whiz-bang technology) is the key to true innovation.

MSI, a Tetra Tech Company, and the National Academy of Public Administration co-sponsored “Unleashing Workforce Creativity: Fostering a Government of Innovation” to discuss this idea.

Attendees included experts who study and practice government innovation at the national and sub-national levels. They shared with the audience, made up of government leaders, rich insights about how anyone in government can utilize strategies, practices and approaches—founded upon the five human-centric tenets below—to better serve the public.

  1. Redefine Public Value. Sometimes innovation requires taking a step back and redefining an agency’s public value, and then communicating that value to agency staff and customers. One example is how New York City’s homelessness programs revisited how they measure the value of their programs. When asked, initially staff had a common response: “by the number of beds we provide for the homeless.” Agency leaders challenged that notion, in that the city seemed to be addressing the symptom of a problem rather than the root cause. To better address the root cause of homelessness, the city changed its measurement unit to the “number of people prevented from becoming homeless.”

    Another municipal example comes from D.C. government, in which government leaders shifted the value of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. They moved away from securing any type of employment anywhere in the city to assisting needy family members to secure jobs that were easier to get to and offered some type of career path or educational attainment. In both cases, local governments redefined the value their agencies brought to the public, allowing innovative solutions to emerge to deliver that value.
     
  2. Ensure Organizational Structures and Processes Support Innovation. Government agencies can support innovation initiatives by creating official organizational units such as offices of innovation or “innovation labs.” Several federal agencies and municipal governments have already done this. In addition, a strategic focus on employee engagement and empowerment can help nurture innovation among employees. Lastly, government can foster innovation by remaining open to and encouraging inter-agency collaboration and information sharing to counter silos, learn what works, and collaborate across offices and agencies.

    This latter strategy resonated with participants during the breakouts. MSI’s Andrew Dicello shared that the small group he facilitated identified the need to connect people across silos to foster innovation, both within the same agency as well as across agencies. This approach can be critical to solving complex problems such as combatting global diseases like Ebola or the measles.

    MSI’s Gail Naimoli shared a technique that the Office of Personnel Management uses to break up silos. At OPM, each office has its own culture.  One way they have managed to collaborate across offices is to convene around common, cross-cutting issues. The hiring of new staff, for example, requires input from different offices, including human resources, the policy office and the hiring manager of a given technical office. Together, they discuss the potential candidate, share perspectives and make decisions with the benefit of a broader perspective than if they had remained within their silos.

    During the panel discussions, one panelist shared that at the U.S. Department of Labor, agency leaders switched the criteria for “Employee of the Month” away from “working long hours” toward being creative or innovative, and also revitalized physical spaces within the facility to encourage creativity.

    Unexpectedly, outsourcing was cited as a useful tool to address situations where government employees lose their ability to think creatively over processes and services they are overly familiar with or which pull them too far into the details. D.C. Government and the General Services Administration both outsourced that kind of work, which allowed employees the mental space to think more creatively and with a broader perspective about the issues.
     
  3. When in Doubt, Ask the Customer. Agency officials need to reach out, listen to and engage with citizens and public program beneficiaries for more insight into seemingly intractable problems. During the breakouts, two groups reported that getting their staff out of the office to where the service delivery takes place—whether in D.C., the 50 states or overseas—is an effective way to remind staff of the agency’s mission, highlight their contributions and inspire staff to think creatively to address concerns shared directly by customers.
     
  4. Utilize Data to Prevent, Mitigate and Reduce Pain Points. Governments are now using predictive data analytics to provide better, faster and more effective services for customers. In some cases, innovation offices or labs partner with product development teams to analyze data on customer pain points to develop more effective customer-facing products and services. Data can be used in a variety of ways to improve the customer experience, including for internal customers. For example, human resource offices can collect and analyze post-training behavior change data to redesign trainings for higher effectiveness in the future. 

    D.C. Department of Human Services conducted a business improvement process to identify process bottlenecks, engage with staff and develop suggestions to improve efficiency. In another case, the New York City Fire Department changed its city-wide building inspection schedule and instead began building inspections based on a data-driven predictive analysis of which buildings were most at risk for fires.
     
  5. Challenge Agency Norms. Challenging agency or office norms can be an effective method in fomenting change and innovation. Individuals need to know they won’t be penalized for going “against the grain” and need to feel empowered to do so.

    While processes may be done a certain way, there could well be more effective or efficient process approaches, and government leaders should foster a trial and error culture of “why not?” and encourage people to work together if they want to, to propose alternate ideas.

    Most government workers do not possess official authority as leaders. If this is the case, then a government worker will have to take a different approach. “Challenging current norms” need not mean a confrontation or direct disagreement. One example of how a government worker challenged agency norms was shared during the breakout sessions. In this person’s agency, most people did not collaborate with others. When they tried to work across offices, the office leadership saw this as going around them. To avoid this perception, the worker went to leadership and asked for permission to work with staff in another office, and to connect staff with each other. Permission was granted, connections were made, and collaboration took place. Working within an agency’s culture and getting leadership buy-in can be effective strategies.  

We would like to thank the participants and distinguished discussants who made “Unleashing Workforce Creativity: Fostering a Government of Innovation” such a success: Dr. Stephen Goldsmith, the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and former Mayor of Indianapolis; David Milestone, Acting Director of the Center for Innovation and Impact at the U.S. Agency for International Development; Kirsten McNally, Director of the Office of Employee Engagement at the U.S. Department of Labor; and Sharon Kershbaum, Chief Operating Officer of the Department of Human Services with the DC Government.

You can find the video of the keynote, the breakout group report-outs and the panel discussion online.