From innovation to business-as-usual

Wednesday, August 17, 2016
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Last week the Mowat Centre released a report called Creating a High-Performing Canadian Civil Service against a Backdrop of Disruptive Change. The author, Mark Jarvis, pegs "innovation" as one of the six characteristics of a high-performing civil service. We'll borrow his words and define it as "the capacity and skill to develop new approaches to policy development and service delivery...  to meet the changing circumstances facing government."

He also included this: "While it may not be desirable for all civil servants to innovate in their individual roles, innovation needs to be a core competency of the civil service."

I'm worried that there's a disconnect between what we might call macro-level innovation - that is, the idea of government writ large experimenting with new approaches - and the experience at the individual level. 

At the individual ideas level, we  talk about crowdsourcing, ideas markets, and open innovation (MIT Press is dropping a book called Free Innovation later this year). Our co-op students are pitching to a "Dragon's Den" for interesting ideas conjured up from the working level later this week.

There is a lot of power and potential in open innovation systems, whereby ideas and experiments can spread and anyone can add to them or pick them up and run with them. 

But here's the disconnect: time and effort is not free; it's not even discretionary. Public servants have a duty to spend their time on the activities they've been directed to accomplish. (Although I do think we should often take a broader view of this (see: Short-term Thinking and Why Communication Can't Defeat Silos).)

Ideas and approaches succeed when they becomes embedded in the right place, and the people that can make it happen are the same people who need the approach to problem-solving in the first place. The lifespan of experiments and proofs-of-concept is determined by whether or not they ever get folded into mandates and business-as-usual.

And for any given good idea, there might be one person or team well-suited to making it a reality. Maybe a few, and in some cases maybe one in every department.

Next, even if the idea and that person or team do come into contact, there's another set of variables. Does that team have the resources? The time? The expertise? Have they just committed to a contradictory idea? (For instance, many otherwise "good" IT ideas are unfeasible when alternative, long-term IT decisions have already been made.)

In a true open innovation ecosystem, there's a much bigger critical mass of actors who can latch on to a given idea. And they can freely choose to spend their time on it. Government innovation, where it requires the exercise of government resources or even represents the choice of one approach over another, removes the "free" and "open" elements (see: On Somewhat Simpler Taxonomies). Duties, authorities, and mandates suddenly become fundamental.

Which is not a showstopper. But for those interested in government doing things differently, it means the conversation has to get into how ideas, once surfaced, are resourced and supported. Far more so than in the external collaboration ecosystems that serve as reference models.