Encouraging innovation in the public sector means establishing a framework for "intrapraneurship."
Public agencies need to build a capacity for intrapreneurship. Intrapreneurs invent new practices, programs, and solutions to address problems and opportunities faced by an organization. These individuals are passionate about the organizations they work for and do not just accept the status quo. They bootstrap and bootleg, they might be viewed as radical (or guerilla) by their peers, and they want to move their organizations ahead. At the CIA, Don Burke and Sean Dennehy realized that the intelligence community did not have or allow for open information sharing. In response, they created ‘Intellipedia,’ a Wikipedia-like clearinghouse for intelligence information that is now used widely across the intelligence community. Similarly, Richard Boly, the director of eDiplomacy at the U.S. Department of State, led a team whose goal was to advance diplomacy through technology and knowledge-sharing platforms. They created ‘Diplopedia,’ a Wikipedia-like encyclopedia of the Department of State's expertise.
The public sector needs to find ways to harness the talent, energy, and zeal of these individuals. Simply put, the current stance that often stifles their creativity, subjecting them to bureaucratic minutiae, and even ignoring their ideas is not only wrong but irresponsible. This irresponsibility does not lie solely with public-sector managers. It lies within the structure of the public sector. Unlike the private sector, the public sector does not exist to compete or increase profits. It has no competitors, therefore competition does not shape its outcomes or needs for innovation. Instead, the public sector is driven by basic principles of efficiency; minimizing waste and maximizing deliverables with strong accountability and due process concerns. These principles engender unique challenges to innovation and the way that it is approached.
The first challenge to innovation in the public sector is in original ideation. Oftentimes, directives are given by elected officials to innovate and it is up to public managers to innovate. If the idea is implemented successfully, the higher echelons receive the credit, but if the idea fails, the lower ranking employees take the blame (e.g. deployment of Healthcare.gov website). Second, success in the public sector is harder to gauge as the public sector has no bottom line. Finally, in the public sector, failure is unacceptable. In the private sector, the risk of failure is carried and accepted by individuals as a cost of doing business. In the public sector, failure comes at the expense of citizens which is strong motivation to stay away from risky ventures. However, this is antithetical to the notion of innovation and experimenting with new ideas.
Despite these challenges, we need innovators within our public agencies. Our best chance at keeping our talent is to allow them to design the future public agencies, public services, and public goods. No more is the old adage “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” acceptable. Challenges such as budget constraints, shifting demographics, and the desire for growth all create a need for more intrapreneurs.
To be successful at intrapreneurship, it is imperative that organizations follow a rigorous process, and hone this process over time. The intrapreneurship process has several phases that take an idea from infancy and scale up for mass success: generalization and mobilization, advocacy and screening, experimentation, commercialization, and diffusion and implementation.
Idea creation and mobilization is the first stage in this process. Ideas are what drive innovation. Idea mobilization requires organizations to take an idea and make it fit within the larger context of the organization. This stage is fraught with frustration because ideas are not generated consistently and cannot be forced and, also, the organization must be ready to use the ideas. Agencies are becoming more adept to seeking ideas from employees regularly and creating an atmosphere of innovation. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) implemented the IdeaFactory in 2007 as an online community where employees make suggestions on ways to improve the TSA. In 2009, Iowa Governor Chet Culver worked with external consultants to implement an idea drive for employees that sought to improve efficiency within state government which resulted in large amounts of money saved.
When an idea has been offered and committed to, advocacy and screening of the idea can take place. This involves evaluating the idea in detail to account for risk. Once the idea has been screened and evaluated, organizations can begin to advocate for the undertaking of the idea. All ideas need a champion and someone that will stand by their development throughout the process. Locating an advocate can be extremely difficult in some organizations, while others make it easy to pitch ideas to decision-makers. For instance, Kana Enomoto of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration built the “PeopleFirst” team which promotes a culture of learning as well as collaboration throughout the agency. Through initiatives such as bi-monthly managers’ forums and food carts to increase engagement for better knowledge-sharing, decision-making and problem-solving, the agency has grown in employee satisfaction and idea generation. Similarly, in 1993, Minnesota state and local officials created the Board of Government Innovation and Cooperation, an independent entity comprised of executive and legislative officials whose mission was to foster a culture more receptive to change in Minnesota’s public sector. The Board supported innovative programs and helped break through dysfunctional procedural barriers to eliminate redundant services in multiple levels of government.
Following idea screening and advocacy, scientific experimentation must be completed to determine an idea’s feasibility. Among the things being tested for in the experimentation phase are the limits of the idea, places where the idea can be deployed, modifications required, and the actual product that will be commercialized. The experimentation phase offers more substantive evidence for idea feasibility instead of just opinion. In the same tradition of some of the world’s greatest innovators such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Morse, experimentation is the only true way to reach innovation. Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb, noted that he knew 1,000 ways not to make a lightbulb before he knew the way to make a lightbulb. He had far more attempts than successes; intraprenuers will be no different.
When experimentation does not take place, it can be costly. The Federal Bureau of Investigation experienced a resounding and costly failure in their development of Virtual Case File software in an attempt to modernize the FBI’s IT infrastructure into one that was more comprehensive and useful to agents. $170 million in taxpayer dollars was spent in the development stage of the process in 2003 and by 2005, the project had been completely abandoned. The project experienced various issues that ranged from repeated changes in the software design, poor architectural decisions, repeated turnover in management, and scope creep, to name a few. So, nearly five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, FBI agents were still using paper files to manage cases. The lack of experimentation of their idea led to a massive failure and loss in productivity for the agency. In 2012, the FBI launched Sentinel, a $405 million web-based system that allows agents to search case files and manage their cases digitally.
Following experimentation, a commercialization plan must be developed to come up with the best and most efficient way to help the target audience find this product useful and desirable. In the public sector, commercialization of solutions is often taken for granted. Today, one can use a wide variety of technology-enabled platforms to commercialize ideas. These platforms range from crowdsourcing forums such as Challenge.gov, where federal agencies can source solutions from the public to the use of online forums and participatory platforms where citizens can co-create solutions with public agencies. The co-creation process is vital to building solutions that have a higher chance of being adopted and implemented, as the customers, in this case, citizens, are brought into the innovation process. For example, the District of Columbia established a crowdsourcing competition under the Apps for Democracy initiative for programmers to develop user-friendly apps for the public. One of the winners created the iLive.at app which allows users to input their address and find out where the nearest shopping center, post office, and other points of interest are located as well as recently reported crime in the area. Also, the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented a competition, in partnership with the International Game Developers Association, for software developers, game designers, and young people to work together to develop games and apps that would promote healthy lifestyles among children.
Finally, diffusion and implementation are the last stages of the process that require the organization to 1) diffuse the idea to the identified markets and 2) help customers use the product successfully. This means that organizations must, in essence, make it easy for consumers to find and use the products. Being attuned to the realities of citizens is necessary in this process. For instance, understanding the likes and dislikes of a particular demographic might change an organization's deployment strategy. They might try to create a buzz on social networking sites or run commercials at a certain time of day to catch a particular demographic. With the end goal of getting the new idea in the hands of the consumer, this phase requires thoughtful marketing by the intrapreneur and the organization. Consider the deployment of Healthcare.gov. Although the website was rife with problems, the Obama Administration promoted it well using a marketing mix that would get the message out about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and citizens’ options. President Obama appeared on Funny or Die’s Between Two Ferns with popular comedic actor Zach Galifianakis in a comedic skit to spread the word about the ACA. The sketch was the main contributor to a 40 percent increase in traffic on Healthcare.gov, 32,000 referrals to the site, and 575,000 visits to the site, all according to the White House.
Overall, intrapreneurship creates an opportunity to disrupt current forces and introduce new ideas and practices into a given market that can change the entire perception of the market. In organizations seeking to encourage more intrapreneurship, employees and their ideas are currency. Finding the optimal balance between remaining competitive with day-to-day activities and finding employees the time and space to be creative is a challenge. Although it is a challenge, the opportunities to create new innovations are a gateway to improved processes and improved options for constituents.
Kevin C. Desouza is the associate dean for research in the College of Public Programs, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs, and the interim director for the Decision Theater in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at Arizona State University.
Kendra L. Smith is a doctoral candidate in the School of Community Resources and Development within the College of Public Programs at Arizona State University.