Is “Innovation in Government” an Oxymoron?

By Geoff McLennan

Time and time again, we learn that some old government project has failed and cost the public millions. In California, we have witnessed millions spent on information technology legacy system renewals that eventually will run; on health services that eventually will work; on prisons that eventually will rehabilitate or emancipate. In national media, we see the same sagas in others states and in the federal government. All the while, the taxpaying public, corporations and some of the very wealthy pay for services that eventually will get it right. It is no wonder that innovation in government is perceived as an oxymoron. I can hear the late actor Jimmy Stewart now: “Well, get off your government chairs and fix things!”

Let’s look at some of the facts about government and innovation. In 2011, noted innovation researcher Marianna Mazzucato published The Entrepreneurial State, wherein she argues that the most risky and uncertain investments underlying most technological revolutions were undertaken by public sector agencies. Literally billions in federal government funding went into developing the Internet and aviation enhancement. Federally funded development continues today in health care research, with multiple beneficial spin-offs.

The same concept applies to state and local governments that have recently funded hackathons and projects that renovated old processes to create better traffic, health and social services, such as the phenomenal improvement in child care service in Los Angeles County. Almost 100 cities across America have chief innovation officers. Obviously government can and has innovated. So why do we continually acknowledge obsolescence in government process and procedures? According to Ronald Reagan, “Status quo, you know, is Latin for the mess we’re in.”

Academic researchers, many of whom are ASPA members, have noted steady improvements in organizational performance and morale when leaders make deliberate attempts to implement creative solutions in government programs. Many ASPA chapters nationwide recognize innovation with annual awards during Public Service Week. Experts are quick to note that leadership needs to sponsor; endure the downside risks; and defend and support innovative processes and legacy systems, as the 10 percent of successful innovations offset the losses of the 90 percent of innovative efforts that fail.

How long can 30 year old processes, procedures and patch-worked information technology systems endure? Does your government program have an innovation officer and foster an environment in which anyone, without harassment or retribution, can propose an innovative solution? Where is the innovative leadership in government when the public clientele so badly needs it the most?

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