Stuck in the Mud

Multiple impediments conspire against innovation in government. It's time to fix the problem.

by / December 4, 2007

I recently taught a performance measurement class to city and county officials, during which I imparted a key lesson: Measuring performance in public service delivery isn't the same as managing performance. The former wields the yardstick periodically; the latter strives to align people, processes and technology to improve service delivery and customer satisfaction, and attpeain results.

Recent public opinion polls highlight the continuing erosion of citizen confidence in elected officials and public institutions. This isn't a new condition caused by problems in Iraq, New Orleans or K-12 education.

In The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis, authors David Osborne and Peter Hutchinson argue that the U.S. has been at war with the public sector since the Proposition 13 tax revolt began in California in June 1977. What's new and troubling is how far civic institutions have sunk in the public eye.

To respond to the citizen confidence challenge, start with measuring the perception and satisfaction of citizens and businesses through polls, focus groups, surveys, customer advisory boards and even by walking around. Our customers tell us where we are succeeding or falling short, and where we fall short tells us where we must get serious about managing performance.

Sometimes the performance shortfall is fairly small, and can be fixed by tweaking the existing system. In other cases, the performance deficit is so large it can only be addressed by serious innovation - by introducing entirely new ways of doing business. Quite simply, successful innovation begets performance, so innovation should be priority for CIOs, public managers and leaders.


Why Is Innovation so Difficult?
Many impediments conspire against innovation, such as government's defensiveness and risk-averse organizational and political leaders. Not understanding citizens' expectations and the shortage of courageous leaders willing to bear the burden and responsibilities of innovation are other issues.

Perhaps the most significant factor is government culture, as illustrated by historian Elting E. Morison in Men, Machines, and Modern Times. When World War II began, the British Army still used light artillery from the Boer War and World War I, which had been around for more than 40 years. But by the late '30s and early '40s, it was pulled by trucks instead of horses.

Some officers sensed these weapons could be improved by increasing their "rapidity of fire." A time-motion expert was engaged to suggest ways to simplify the firing procedures. "Puzzled by certain aspects of the procedures, he took some slow-motion pictures of the soldiers performing the loading, aiming and firing routines," Morison wrote.

"When he ran these pictures over once or twice, he noticed something that appeared odd to him. A moment before the firing, two members of the gun crew ceased all activity and came to attention for a three-second interval extending throughout the discharge of the gun. He summoned an old colonel of artillery, showed him the pictures and pointed out this strange behavior. The colonel too was puzzled. He asked to see the pictures again. 'Ah,' he said when the performance was over, 'I have it. They are holding the horses.'"

Every organization incorporates vestigial routines because they've always been there. The routines are transmitted to successive generations of workers and codified in our standard operating procedures. They may be legitimate contributors to performance - or they may not.


Some Questions
To what extent does your government culture support norms that no longer contribute to performance-focused, customer-driven programs and practices? What's the Innovation Quotient (IQ) of your organization? What roles and mechanisms exist for incubating and generalizing innovation?

These questions haunt me because I believe complacency is innovation's enemy. Complacency contributes to governments' failure to understand citizen expectations and measure of their progress in meeting those expectations, injuring the social contract between the government and the governed. It makes the confidence problem worse. These same questions haunt me further when I ponder the future.


Tough Times Ahead
In August 2006, I wrote about The Lean Government Imperative, noting that the nation's long-term fiscal condition is barely above water. Fiscal disorder indicators include record federal deficits, our seemingly bottomless trade imbalance, Americans' zero savings rate, deferred maintenance on infrastructure, rising interest rates, shaky pension plans, Medicare and its daunting demographics, and a host of ill-considered unfunded mandates.

Soon these conditions will shepherd in a new era of resource scarcity that'll give public managers conniptions and threaten to erode public services further. Within the next 15 years or so, it may be too late to innovate. The bills for our excesses will pile on.

The lead times for cultivating and incorporating innovation can be long, and the organizational learning curve can be massive. The time to create an innovation strategy is now. It should be No. 1 for every federal, state and local agency, and public school in the nation. Agency heads, deputies and CIOs are well positioned to drive the innovation strategy and evolve their own roles into that of the chief innovation officer.


How to Improve Your Organization's IQ
You can take four actions to raise your IQ and that of your organization's.

1. Prepare to lead the charge on innovation. Make it your top learning and professional development objective. Consider taking a course at a place like the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas-Dallas. Subscribe to mailings from the Lean Enterprise Institute and track the public-sector work of Six Sigma in Europe. Sponsor a workshop in your government with a firm that teaches innovation. Build a database of similar firms to which you can send solicitations.

2. Develop an incubator to test and protect innovation. An article in Fast Company magazine profiled Sir James Dyson, whose company is a market leader in vacuum cleaners. Dyson made 5,126 prototypes before he got it right. Obviously government isn't going to tolerate that much tinkering, but failure teaches success. Too often our executives and elected officials punish (or at least actively discourage) experimentation. As Dyson sees it, "If you want to discover something that other people haven't, you need to do things the wrong way."

Consider Max Mancini, who heads eBay's Disruptive Innovation team. Its role is to identify "things that take the company toward the next 10 to 20 years." How might the government policy and service platform look if we were designing for today's realities and tomorrow's challenges rather than for past practices?

In creating your own innovation lab, assemble cross-functional teams or members of extended business processes - like state, county and nonprofit participants - to develop, test, prove and deploy innovations. Manage your experiments using a portfolio approach that allows for risk containment and leverages yield.

3. Hire innovators. Make continuous improvement and innovation part of your job descriptions. Look to degree programs specializing in innovation, entrepreneurship, customer service management, industrial engineering, process management, systems science, marketing and activity-based costing. Consider developing an "innovators internship" to attract talent from top colleges. CIOs can renew their talent base with vertical skills in applications development, technology operations and telecommunications, while broadening the horizontal base with lateral disciplines that support innovation.

4. Replace RFPs with Requests for Innovators. Does your purchasing organization send out RFPs that rival the local phone directory's size and weight? Do they typically lead with 20-30 pages of contract terms and conditions followed by endless pages of mandatories and desirables? This conventional approach to acquisitions typically focuses more on the "as-is" condition than on the "should be" state of performance. While this approach may work well for commodity items, it doesn't attract creative proposals or innovative solutions - or creative proposers or innovative solvers. You need a different approach to innovation that enlists able professionals in a strategy, design, execution and value-harvesting arrangement. This isn't the stuff for RFPs.


Stop Holding the Horses
Lest you think this is impossible, I leave you with this closing observation from one of our nation's great innovators:

"Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it." - Steve Jobs, Fortune, Nov. 9, 1998.


George K. Beard is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Government and a senior instructor and consulting principal with the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.


George K. Beard Contributing Writer
George K. Beard is a regular contributor to Public CIO. He is also the founder of GovernmentWise Inc., a management consulting firm; a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Government; and teacher at the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.