COMMENTARY

Shifting culture is the best way to reignite public-sector innovation

modernization (iQoncept/Shutterstock.com)

Right now, we're in a storm of digital disruption, also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or any of the other trendy monikers coined in recent years. The truth is that the speed of innovation today makes long-term planning incredibly difficult.

Like everyone, government organizations are struggling to chart paths forward in the face of a fast-moving and increasingly ambiguous future. According to a 2018 report from the Congressional Research Service, federal government IT budgets are growing, but so are the costs of maintaining older systems.

The only way government agencies -- or any organization -- will continue to thrive amid continual, innovative disruptions will be to fundamentally rethink how they operate.

First and foremost, that means questioning the principles that drive those organizations, which are still optimized for industrial-era economies. These organizations tend to favor hierarchical structures as a means of driving large-scale efficiencies. For them, planning is a rather simple and straightforward matter of identifying a strategic position in a market or a capability that needs development, formulating plans to achieve those ends, dictating the steps required to get there and ensuring everyone in the organization complies with those decisions.

Doing more of this -- just somehow better and faster -- isn't the way forward. The hierarchies and bureaucracies so common today were effective for their time, but now the context has shifted.

Today, we should be organizing for innovation. More often, this means starting in a small, defined way, perhaps on a project-level basis, questioning received wisdom and tradition.

The organizations best able to weather disruption are open organizations, those that embrace principles like transparency, collaboration and meritocracy as foundational values. These organizations can act with greater agility, learn from passionate global communities, benefit from more engaged employees and stakeholders, and innovate more frequently because they're built on values more conducive to adapting to the future rather than controlling it.

However, the cultures of our government organizations won't change until their leaders change. They'll need to recognize that culture is an output of the behaviors they champion and model, not an input they can drive across an organizational chart. Leaders must get comfortable creating places where constructive conflict is the norm, where people question even the most long-standing traditions, where bottom-up decisions carry real weight and where failure that produces useful knowledge is a cause for praise, not punishment.

Most significantly, however, leaders must come to grips with letting go. They'll need to leave behind their impressions of the leader as an all-knowing coordinator who architects a brilliant plan and masterminds its execution. Instead, they'll need to function as catalysts for constant change and become agitators who bring the right people together at the right moments to solve the right problems. In other words, they must be open to changing themselves before they begin changing their organizations.

Open principles guide how an organization operates, even if only internally. Efforts to open up organizations don't need to be focused on the product shipped but on changing how those products are delivered with greater speed, responsiveness to constantly changing environments, and care and attentiveness to customers.

Government agencies face many of the same challenges and pressures private-sector companies do -- including maintaining the kind of agile, responsive and digitally enabled organizations people have come to expect in their everyday lives. But agencies already benefit from a mandate for transparency and an abundance of civic-minded, community-focused enthusiasm, so they, too, could open themselves to a more inclusive future.

Take this example: the city of San Rafael, located in Marin County, Calif., recently undertook some major culture-renovation initiatives aimed at helping the city government "learn how to make government work better by sharing what we make, learn and improve," as the city's director of digital service and open government said in a recent presentation. The city has relaunched its intranet -- something previously available only to internal employees -- as a public-facing utility anyone can access and review. This has not only increased transparency and accountability but also aided recruitment. That is just one way that governments could (as the U.S. Digital Service puts it and as we like to say at Red Hat) "default to open."

Incremental advancements toward openness go a long way to fostering an environment where people aren't afraid to voice their opinions and instead feel empowered to be creative and suggest new ideas. "Going open" isn't an all-or-nothing gambit, and it never works by fiat or decree. It's about identifying the areas where open attitudes and behaviors can make the most significant impacts in particular agencies and empowering decision-makers to implement open policies where they see fit.

Operating openly is an option available to any organization. But in a world where opening up seems to be the only way to avoid disruption, it's a choice that's becoming harder not to make.

About the Author

Jim Whitehurst is president and CEO of Red Hat.

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