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On Dragon's Dens, Hackathons and Innovation Labs

Friday, March 7, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I was asked recently to give a talk on injecting creativity in the civil service. The timing of the request is somewhat ironic given that I just left on an interchange and that one of the reasons I left was because I wanted more opportunities for creativity in the workplace.

Irony aside (and in fairness the invitation was issued a long time ago), the more I thought about the metaphor of injecting creativity, the more compelling I thought it was as a frame for discussion. As a metaphor, it speaks not only to the core challenge of creativity in the civil service but also to the underlying problem of how we think about solving it: We don't treat the underlying cause, we treat the symptom.

But the lack of creativity in the civil service - if you agree such a thing exists - isn't a structural problem per se but rather is the result of a myriad of other structural problems: hierarchy, risk aversion, group think and all the other usual suspects that round out the gamut.

There are surely creative people working for governments. I have met many, but the environment within which they work simply doesn't foster their creativity.

What's the solution?

The short answer is simple: fix the underlying problems.

The long answer  how to actually fix those problems  is much more complicated. If pressed to offer a TL;DR of the problem I would say that the core challenge facing public sector institutions right now is that industrial age organizational models don't jive with digital age cultures and technologies.

I would say that things are breaking.

Everyone kind of understands this, even if only implicitly

Leadership knows it. It's implied in their discussions about how the civil service is losing its monopoly on policy advice and evidenced whenever they turn a wilful blind eye to the established hierarchy or the machinery to better accomplish their goals.

Grunts know it. They exploit it whenever they use flattening technologies to reach across reporting structures, jurisdictions, geographies, languages, and ideologies.

Citizens know it. They are solving building solutions faster, better and cheaper than governments ever thought possible, let alone have the capacity to deliver (See: The Solution Revolution by William Eggers and Paul Macmillan)

Things are breaking and governments are struggling.

We're on our heels when we need to be leaning in

Despite these immense pressures, the cultural bias of bureaucracy is to subjugate new ideas to old principles (and processes) while thoughtful re-examination is anathema. That said, the former leads to press release by Twitter and extends industrial age thinking to digital technologies. The latter leads to a discussion about how democracy changes in the wake of communications technologies like Twitter, and in so doing it asks: "What does governance look like in a digital era?"

Where's the vein that runs through all of that?

How can any one individual reasonably expect to navigate such a complex system?

Distributed governance. Overlapping institutions. Supercharged technology. Agile citizenry.

Leaning in takes courage. Who among us is ready to stand up and take decisive action when the court of public opinions sees its public service as an ignoble profession (See: When did the Public Service Become an Ignoble Profession)? When the predominate discourse is about eliminating rather than creating (See: One Man's Trash is Another Man's Treasure)? When pundits and politicos jump on every miscue, and citizens are quick to scream "not in my back yard"?

Perhaps we need a different metaphor.

How do you eat the elephant?

There is an emergent patchwork of solutions that leadership seems increasingly interested in. It seems like you can't even have a conversation in this town without someone mentioning Dragon's Dens, Hackathons, or Innovation Labs. The patchwork is interesting, promising and even problematic.

It is interesting because it's evidence of my earlier claim that leadership knows something is amiss; it is promising because it demonstrates their willingness to try something different; and it is problematic because it's born of the same thinking that asks "how does one inject creativity into the civil service". It's additive, it doesn't address the underlying issues and if done in isolation is little more than another check mark in the column of innovation rhetoric.

However, if strung together under a larger plan the patchwork becomes something very different, and while I'm hopeful that those embarking down the path of dens, 'thons and labs have a vision of how these pieces fit together now and how they will be integrated into the larger whole (and what needs to change in order for that to happen AND how they plan on changing those things), I haven't heard anyone articulate it yet.

But maybe I'm getting a little ahead of myself. After all, the answer to the question is one bite at a time.