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Innovation: It Isn't for Everyone

A new paper shows that innovation isn't a solution, but another project that not everyone is ready to manage.

As with all buzzwords, "innovation" has begun to lose its meaning.

But if "innovation" is code for the creative use of technology to save money and further an organization's goals through unconventional channels, then everyone wants it -- and it partly explains why government offices dedicated to IT innovation are growing in popularity. Projects led through offices like Boston’s New Urban Mechanics get people excited because they show that government isn’t all gray buildings and waiting in line – government does cool stuff, too.

But if pursuing innovation is so worthwhile, then it's a mystery why everyone isn't doing it. Innovation, it turns out, isn't for everyone.

Researchers Rachel Burstein and Alissa Black, former city program director at Code for America, were intrigued by the government innovation trend and decided to look deeper. They analyzed government innovation offices around the country, examined their histories and interviewed their champions. The team published their findings in an IBM Innovation Series paper called A Guide for Making Innovation Offices Work.

The paper concludes that government innovation offices can be effective, but they don’t work for everyone. “A lot of careful, thoughtful planning needs to go into thinking about their mission and their function within the larger governmental entity in order for them to work,” Burstein said in an interview with Government Technology. “It’s not a solution – it’s part of a larger plan.”

The paper serves as a guide much like a travel book gives the reader information so he can make an informed decision and find his own way. For some, an innovation post won’t work, so such a guide could enlighten a lot of would-be innovators, said Burstein, a former research associate at the New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation Project.

The biggest factor that contributes to the success or failure of an innovation office, the paper found, is the amount of resources a government is willing to put behind it. “We saw in some cases this was something that was kind of tacked on to someone who had a full-time position already, and that seems to be less effective,” Burstein said. “In order to make this work, you need to have real resources, not just for the salary, but a little bit of a budget to work with.”

The second most important factor was executive buy-in. “The politics really matter,” Burstein said. “It’s really important that the top appointed or elected official in the organization is committed 100 percent, and if that’s not the case, it’s not really worth pursuing.”

Burstein and Black found that innovation’s sometimes cloudy definition was another barrier to success. In instances where offices set out to “innovate” without defining what that meant, it shouldn’t be surprising that there was only limited success. “It has to be around a particular set of policies, objectives for the organization as a whole that fit within the larger priorities,” Burstein said. “Also, it shouldn’t be a one-off project.”

If a government simply wants to launch an open data platform, it should just launch an open data platform, she said. There’s no sense in creating an entirely new post just for one project; innovation offices are for organizations that are committed to ongoing innovation.

The paper lists seven total factors that allow an innovation office to be successful and sustainable. The final four are as follows:

  • Communicate effectively with internal and external partners throughout the innovation life cycle.
  • Find allies within government and committed partners outside of government.
  • Establish an innovation process from the outset, even if the exact details and specific projects change over time.
  • Seize opportunities to share lessons and information emerging from government innovation offices through both formal and informal networks.
“Innovation” is an ambiguous term, as is “innovation office." Burstein identifies six structural models of innovation offices used today: laboratory, facilitator, adviser, technology build-out, liaison and sponsored. The terms are mostly self-explanatory, but definitions aside, an organization considering an innovation office should realize this is yet another decision it needs to make if it has any hope of getting a decent return on investment, Burstein said. 

An article that Burstein and Black wrote for Slate in 2013 titled, Most Cities Don’t Need Innovation Offices, gained much attention from government. Though the title portrays a more cynical viewpoint than Burstein designs, the warning is clear: These are uncharted waters.

Despite the great amount of attention government pays to innovation, very little research has been done in the area. One of the most surprising things about their own research, Burstein said, was discovering that they were nearly alone in their field. Innovation can affect great change (as you can read daily), and the offices that Burstein interviewed are doing some of the best work in government today – but there’s little science to quantify that impression.

“I think the jury is still out,” Burstein said. “That said, when we talked to people, it seemed to us that before these posts were created, there was nobody that took responsibility for these elements, except in extraordinary circumstances. Having an organizational commitment to develop new ways of doing things technologically and otherwise, I think, is really important, and that is something the chief innovation officer role offers.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.