Three barriers that hold back government innovation

A new report sheds light on how the field needs to change to flourish

The field of government innovation in the US is fragmented and siloed, according to a new report released by public policy thinktank New America. If they are to thrive in government, innovators need better professional development opportunities, a stronger sense of community and a more cohesive way to talk about the field.

Getting the Work Done: What Government Innovation Really Looks Like is written by Hana Schank and Sara Hudson, public interest technology fellows at New America.

Through interviews with over 60 city managers, service designers, product managers, engineers and chief innovation officers across the country, Schank and Hudson identify what’s working in the field — and what isn’t. They outline three crucial factors that are holding public sector innovation back.

1) Siloes are hurting the field

Innovators are “desperate” for resources on best practice, connections with other practitioners and glimpses into other agencies’ work, write the authors. While other specialists convene at conferences and professional organisations, few outlets exist to connect people in government innovation.

This lack of community leaves different teams to work on solving the same problems without sharing crucial information on what works and what doesn’t.

“There isn’t anybody in a position to say, ‘All cities are now going to use this format to share information’. There isn’t any obvious aggregator and convener in this space,” said Hudson. “There need to be more ways for people to connect and commiserate, and to exchange ideas.”

Getting innovators to share successes and failures is key to saving time, preserving taxpayer dollars and eliminating the fear of failure. It’s also the most effective way to scale solutions, said Hudson and Schank.

2) No shared vocabulary

“No two people we interviewed described their work in the same way. Most people think of themselves as problem-solvers, which is so wide-ranging,” said Schank. Because every innovator seems to define their job differently, it’s hard to find and connect with other innovators, added Hudson.

Problem-solving is the term Schank and Hudson landed on to describe government innovators throughout the report: it encapsulates soft skills, like critical thinking and listening, and is wide-ranging enough to include different innovation specialities.

But it’s not just job titles — practitioners, managers and citizens need a better way to talk about government innovation as a whole.

The field and its solutions can’t be scaled without cohesive terminology, the authors argue, because, without it, no one knows if they’re talking about the same thing. This means practitioners and leaders must answer long-contested questions like: What is this field called? What does innovation mean? What can we call ourselves? Our work? And how do we know when we’ve succeeded?

3) A lack of professional development opportunities

In the private sector, employees are often offered training sessions and mentoring opportunities, which isn’t the norm in government. None of the people Schank and Hudson interviewed — many of whom are at the top of their field — received government-specific innovation training.

“There’s not a lot of professional development money. People don’t think, ‘I’m going to go into government and negotiate into my contract that I get X dollars a year to spend on going to conferences’ or ‘I’m going to put an afternoon a week aside to think about things’. Taxpayers frown on that,” laughed Hudson.

There’s also no clear-cut career path for government innovators. Many in the innovation space are in government on temporary funding arrangements or fellowships, which makes it difficult for them to advance professionally. If governments want to prioritise innovation, they need to develop more formalised career trajectories for those in the field.

“It’s often slow and small and not shiny, and takes a lot of time”

One of the most important takeaways from this report is that government innovation is more often about improving systems than building a new website or app. When governments focus singularly on tech without considering processes, they run into problems.

Beth Noveck, the director of the Governance Lab at NYU and one of the report’s interviewees, used Decide Madrid as an example.

The platform, through which citizens can make suggestions for new laws, is often cited as a model for public participation in decision-making. In its first year, it got 19,000 citizen proposals‚ but only two moved forward and none were acted upon, said Noveck. The technology behind the platform works beautifully, but the way city hall works hasn’t changed to accommodate it.

“We wanted to reach folks who are impacting the everyday ways government works, and shift paradigms about what innovators and problem-solvers look like,” said Schank. “It’s often slow and small and not shiny, and takes a lot of time. It’s not going to look like ‘blockchain for the homeless’ — more like ‘smarter ways to fill potholes in the city’.” — Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Pexels/rawpixel)

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