How to foster an innovation culture in government

To close the innovation gap between the public and private sector, governments must become applied learning systems that constantly adapt to change.

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Government has midwifed technology from GPS to rocket ships to email. Government can innovate. But all too often lately, the pace of technological change accelerates far faster than change in government itself. When a citizen can order dinner with two thumb swipes, registering a business by waiting in leg-aching queues feels incredibly onerous.

To close the innovation gap between the public and private sector, governments may need to transition into "cognitive learning systems." It would be a radical change. A cognitive learning system is an organization that actively learns and adapts -- not under orders from above, but as a standard continuation of its process. The question is, if you left your agency leaderless, would its natural momentum drive it to improve?

Cognitive learning systems solicit regular feedback, so agile philosophies, which emphasize research, customer-centric design and prototyping, naturally compliment cognitive learning systems.

Agile methods drive some initiatives, like New Zealand municipalities surveying building contractors to identify the most painful steps in permitting. But we rarely see a cognitive redesign of an organization. That kind of transition would incorporate some core elements: open functionality, innovation from "the edges," embracing failure, re-skilling talent pools and simply sheltering critical voices. These strategies increase the flow of new ideas, which an organization can then evaluate, test and deploy.

Although government employees do innovate, those innvators represent a fraction of a nation's enormous pool of talent and energy. Prizes, challenges and crowdsourcing let governments participate in collaborative public-private ecosystems. The collective intelligence of thousands can identify solutions that one hard-working employee never would. We've seen a protein-folding game identify an enzyme critical to stopping HIV. Bug bounties and hackathons have found weaknesses in critical government code.

At a simple level, the U.S. government already has shown a big commitment to responding to user feedback. Much more can be done, however. To paraphrase Linus's Law, given enough eyeballs, all flaws can be improved.

Soliciting input from individuals doesn't replace observing unusual ecosystems. When an ancient ayurvedic cure for cholera in Bangladesh inspired a revolutionary treatment called Oral Rehydration Salts (a precursor to Gatorade), or when the U.S. government funded the expansion of a small NGO that showed impressive results with the homeless, that was the core meeting the edge.

In business terms, the core is the network of professionals and resources where power accumulates. The edge is where outsiders experiment to solve niche challenges. Young generations repurposing technology occupy an edge. Emerging economies, where people maximize the use of minimal resources, represent another. Maybe Floyd at customer service who keeps finding new ways to placate disgruntled citizens is an edge by himself. Knowledge flows can connect the resources at the core with innovation at the edge.

While it's strategic to collect ideas from outside, innovative organizations must change their culture internally. First, they must shed their fear of failure. Bureaucracies tend to punish failure, which is memorable, and reward mediocrity, which doesn't produce a metric you can pin to a file. But modern technology makes the cost of failure cheap, and the pace of redesign rapid. Prototypes, beta versions and A/B testing all risk failure in exchange for new discoveries. Innovative companies -- and governments -- build failure into their attitude: fail quickly if you must, learn, and move on to the next iteration.

Accepting failures even helps prevent larger ones. If employees know that they can kill a struggling project without damaging their careers, they are more likely to shut it down before it expands beyond them. Big disasters have blame to share, but it's preferable to stop a mistake when one poor soul owns it.

Changing a culture requires changing the people. Rather than replace an entire agency with engineers fluent in agile methodology, the UK's Department of Work and Pensions shuttled employees to six-week "digital boot camps." Employees learned concepts like user-centric design and agile development, as well as specific skills, like prototyping and wire-framing. That six weeks didn't produce experts, but it did produce "plumber's mates" -- apprentices who could hold their own.

Organizations can also nurture critical eyeballs with safe havens for low risk innovation. "Skunk works" with limited bureaucracy or test projects that don't count against manager's performance reviews can protect innovative ideas.

As technological progress accelerates, the possibilities for efficient, effective government expand. To meet their own potential, governments should reorganize around collecting and assessing new ideas. It only works if leaders keep an open mind, and free their charges from pressure to produce any specific result…except for what works.

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