Can Public Sector Innovation Truly Break Through?

Photo by Daniel Lombardi

Photo by Daniel Lombardi

Clayton Christensen, Nikhil Sahni, and Maxwell Wessel wrote the cover story for the latest edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, titled: Unleashing Breakthrough Innovation in Government. I was left disappointed, but gained clarity on what I want to learn more about.

The five projects highlighted in the article as “disruptive innovation” transported me back to the ‘90s. In this era, growth was achieved through cutting costs, mainly by replacing old technology, machines and people with new technology. Four of the five success stories featured in the article were instances where the project outcome was reduced costs, and the solution was to bring in a new technology to replace the old. A new solar trashcan replaces the static metal ones. An app replaces street meters. A 3-1-1 phone number goes online/mobile. They all have the same basic story line but each with a different, novel technology solution at its core. Even reading about the implementation is the same. The article notes that in each case “experiments” were run, however, what is described as an experiment is simply a pilot, a way to work out the kinks before going wider. Don't get me wrong, a pilot is better than just crossing your fingers and launching broadly, but its value is nothing compared to running a low-fidelity in-market experiment with a few distinct concepts. Unlike a pilot, an in-market experiment allows for a complete pivot if need be.

As I reflected on the article I realized that the projects brought forth as shining stars of government innovation were, in fact, incremental, not disruptive. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I love me some incremental innovation. Why?

It builds your confidence, makes your customers’ lives better, and probably gets you more resources to keep being more innovative. And it’s easy because it’s a not-too-distant cousin of process improvement. Which we, as large organizations, love because after nearly three decades of doing it, we’re pretty comfortable with it.

Also, I LOVE being on the receiving end of incremental innovations (particularly the Parkmobile app that is the center piece of the article - hallelujah for no more quarters).  But I want to go a level deeper and get out of the '90s. So— I have some questions for my civil servant friends:

  • Can you pivot?
  • Is the annual budget and planning process open to knowing that something in the next year will meet an unmet need but not knowing what that will be?
  • Is learning just as valid of an outcome as a specific program, product or service for OMB, Congress or taxpayers (to name a few)?

What questions do you have for our civil servants? What’s the back story you’d want to hear?  Let’s co-create and learn how we can help Uncle Sam get really get disruptive.