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Innovation and government: not mutually exclusive

"Approximately half of the innovations were developed by frontline employees and middle managers"

(photo by Ken Jones)

In his new book, The Persistence of Innovation in Government, UTSC Department of Management Professor Sandford Borins explores the changing landscape of American public sector innovation.

Governments everywhere are increasingly being expected to deliver innovative solutions to a growing list of challenges; Borins explores who is doing the innovating in government and how. He also looks at the persistent obstacles to innovation and the proven strategies to overcome them.

He spoke with writer Don Campbell about how innovation in government is taking place and also reflects on public sector innovation in Canada.

How did you go about researching innovation in government?
I took several hundred applications to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Innovations in American Government Awards over the last 20 years and turned them into a large database. Prior to that, researchers on public sector innovation were doing individual case studies. My research advanced the field because I used the database to identify trends and characteristics that could provide a framework for practical advice. Hopefully this can help politicians and public servants seeking to advance the public good through their innovations.

Who is doing the innovating and where is it taking place?
The short answer is everywhere: federal, state and municipal governments are all well represented. While we might expect that most innovations are launched by politicians or agency heads, an unexpected finding in my research was that a large proportion, approximately half of the innovations, were developed by frontline employees and middle managers. 

What challenges do governments face when trying to be innovative?
Government departments tend to be large and bureaucratic, and hence less agile than the technology startups that we normally associate with the idea of innovation.

But there is great pressure on government to innovate. Governments are under financial constraint and want to find ways to deliver their services at lower cost. They need to address messy problems or situations that cross departmental boundaries. Finally, citizens expect public services to be delivered just as quickly and seamlessly as private sector goods and services.

What conditions need to be in place to help promote innovation in government?
You need a commitment from the leadership group to support innovative solutions, especially those coming from middle managers and front line staff.

A bit of money helps. It doesn’t have to be a huge amount, but seed money to experiment definitely helps. Having an innovation lab or departmental chief innovation officer often helps. Gathering and publishing performance data on programs and initiatives is crucial.

Lastly, outreach or crowd-sourcing can stimulate the public to innovate on their own. The U.S. government has done well on this front by creating competitions to engage the public in creating innovative solutions to a particular challenge.

What really stands out in terms of how innovation in government has changed over the past 20 years?
Approximately 80 per cent of public sector innovations now involve either interdepartmental collaboration within government or collaboration between government and the private or non-profit sectors. This is because policy problems have become more difficult and multi-faceted than was the case two decades ago. At that time, public sector innovation was to a much greater degree about making individual public sector departments function more efficiently, for example by introducing new technology, or improving service.

Look at network terrorism for instance. There needs to be constant coordination between police, the military, and security agencies. Crafting social policy around an issue like homelessness requires departments of housing, employment and healthcare to work together for solutions to be successful.  

What are some concrete examples of how governments can be innovative?
Some great examples involve municipal governments. In New York City a program called NYC Service helps New Yorkers who want to volunteer better connect to service opportunities and targets the City’s most urgent needs. More than 50,000 people were involved in different services including teaching large numbers of people CPR, managing vaccinations for bird flu and even painting apartment roof-tops with light-reflective paint. It was started in 2009 during the recession when many people were unemployed and looking for useful and meaningful things to do.

In Boston an app called Citizens Connect helps people bring attention to issues like potholes, damaged signs, and graffiti, by sending a tweet, email or photo. These are both great, innovative solutions to problems that affect ordinary citizens on a daily basis.

What’s the story when it comes to innovation in Canada?
The story is very much a mixed one. The great heroes of innovation in municipal government in the US have been long-term mayors like Thomas Menino in Boston and Michael Bloomberg in New York. They are both people who care passionately about public policy and who look for solutions that are strongly supported by evidence. All Rob Ford has in common with them is the title “mayor.” He functions solely on the basis of instinct and ideology. Hopefully this year’s municipal election brings in a leader who is not only imaginative but also respects evidence.

The federal government is a bit of a different story. The Harper government has often introduced innovations through the mechanism of tax credits. The home renovation tax credit program aimed at stimulating the construction industry during the 2008-10 recession and had tremendous uptake, with nearly one in three Canadian homeowners taking advantage. The registered disability savings plan designed to help the families of citizens with disabilities save for the future has also been quite successful. These programs fare very well in comparison to other federal government programs around the world. 

At the same time, other policies of the Harper government such as relentless cost cutting, ignoring evidence and crippling the process of gathering evidence (like eliminating the long-form census) have been antithetical to innovation.