Experiment and fail well: seven ways to get public servants innovating

Reward failure, steal from the private sector and scrap bureaucracy

At a company, failure leads to loss of revenue or investment — but in government, taking risks can put hospitals, schools and childcare in jeopardy. Governments have reason to be risk-averse.

It’s not just governments’ vast responsibility that holds them back from innovation: it’s the way that departments, and their incentives, are structured. “Timelines tend to be a little too short, and there are a lot of embedded power structures from department to department, which often makes cooperation and innovation difficult,” said Douglas Williamson, managing partner at the Collective Leadership Institute.

But there’s a clear need for managers to encourage greater experimentation: from 1997 to 2012, output per job grew by 24% in private sector services and only 9% in public services. Here are seven ways managers can get their employees to boost productivity by acting more like entrepreneurs.

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1. Give employees cover to experiment

Fear of failure holds people back. Public servants may worry about what will happen if they stray from standard practice and their project fails. If their boss takes public responsibility for failure — and assures them it’s to be expected — civil servants will feel more secure about taking risks.

“No number of nice speeches will counter the effect of seeing someone get called out or put down for an unintended outcome. People need to know in their heart of hearts that you have their backs,” said Dave Conabree, director general of Employment Programs at the Canadian Revenue Agency.

2. Focus on the end goal

Many departments place too much emphasis on bureaucracy-entrenched processes that dictate how projects are delivered. If you give employees a goal and tell them they can achieve it any way they choose, they will work harder to improve — because there’s more at stake when they do it their way.

“We tend to focus on how people work, rather than what they achieve — part of that is because measuring the output is really hard, but another piece is cultural,” said Mariel Reed, founder of CoProcure, which aims to improve technology procurement for local government.

“Some of the better managers that I’ve worked for have goals that are a little more focused on end users, but are also measurable. They empower staff to track those goals and celebrate when they are met,” said Reed.

3. Change your departments’ incentives

Governments often promote people who work within the bureaucracy, not outside of it. If managers want their employees to be innovative, employees who focus on improving the machine should be rewarded — even if they fail — so colleagues see the benefits of taking risks.

These rewards can be small: some governments use games with prizes, which can motivate people to take time out of their everyday work to try something different. Others give out innovation awards, send memos to upper management or institute peer-recognition programs.

4. Identify your most innovative employees and have them teach others

The recently closed MindLab, the Danish government’s in-house innovation lab, aimed to change how government works by instituting a culture of innovation across the public sector.

Its LabRats initiative nominated innovative public servants to bring experimentation into their own departments, and Project X rewarded them for being innovative in their daily work. The Lab changed how public agencies across Denmark think and work.

5. Normalise failure

Every department needs a strategy for what happens when experimentation leads to failure. Managers could identify a fixed percentage of programs that are not expected to succeed, for example.

This, coupled with teaching how to manage risk, rather than avoid it, will make it help break down the taboos associated with experimentation.

“Experimenting is important to finding policy solutions. Government must recognise that not everything is going to succeed, so there has to be some space for failure,” said Leighton Andrews, a former education minister in the Welsh government now at Cardiff Business School.

6. Borrow from the private sector

Public servants have a great deal of expertise on the problems they’re trying to solve — but often don’t have access to the latest technology and skills. Finding ways to pool resources and “borrow” these from entrepreneurs can reinvigorate how public servants work.

San Francisco does this with its Startup in Residence program, through which public agencies work with private entrepreneurs. The startup employees give city officials a fresh perspective on long-standing civic problems, and help them prototype and user-test solutions. Managers tell public servants that it’s a sanctioned risk, and they’ll have their support, even if projects fail.

7. Lead by example

It’s difficult to define managers’ role in innovation, as current performance management tactics focus on upholding the status quo, not upending it. But if you want your employees to shuck traditional practice and processes in favour of finding new ways to do things, you’ll have to do the same. Finding innovative ways to organise, lead, coordinate and motivate can produce dramatic changes in how employees do their jobs.

“If you talk a good game about innovation but aren’t willing to really put yourself out in the field to challenge the status quo, especially on things that matter, it rings hollow. People will take their cues from what you do, more than what you say,” said Conabree. — Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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