On Leveling the Status Quo-Innovation Playing Field

Friday, November 11, 2016
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I sat in and spoke with a class of Carleton University students earlier this week (c/o Amanda Clarke) and was asked, among other things, "What's the biggest barrier to innovation in the public service right now?".

My answer was fairly simple - the uneven playing field civil servants face whenever they decide to pursue innovation rather than the status quo. While I've argued previously that the transaction costs of innovation are far higher than that of the status quo (See: The Problem of Asymmetric Scrutiny) it only dawned on me in the classroom that there is likely more than one way to level the playing field.

We tend to focus on 'enabling' innovation

In my experience whenever we talk about innovation we tend to focus on how to 'grease the wheels' or 'reduce friction' in the system to allow innovation to move through it (from ideation to implementation at scale) more easily. This often leads to the creation of new knowledge products, the design and delivery of workshops, changes to governance, etc. In short the focus is on making innovation easier, rather than on making the status quo harder. But, what if we started to focus our attention there instead?

Should we consider 'confining and restricting' the status quo?

At first blush this sounds akin to the further bureaucratization of the civil service -- and perhaps it is -- but only insofar as it would mean layering over the same amount of institutional inertia that slows down innovation in the system on the rest of the system. At this point you may think that is impossible (that we can't possibly get any more bureaucratic -- that we've already reached Peak Bureaucracy), and you may be right.

To be honest, it's difficult for me to articulate how to effectively 'confine and restrict' the status quo within the context of the civil service. It could mean things such as increasing the administrative burden on current operations, imposing higher evidential requirements on current programs, and/or reducing the resources allocated to maintain those policies and programs.

Again, most civil servants would balk at the idea (and perhaps even me personally) for suggesting the further bureaucratization of the bureaucracy but what I am driving at (I think) is that making the pursuit of the status quo as difficult as the pursuit of innovation by increasing the transaction costs of that pursuit would mean that innovation in the civil service would know longer be a herculean task, that the levels of effort required to pursue either path would be commensurate.

Now, whether or not an even playing field would allow civil servants to shed the path dependencies of the current normative culture (e.g. risk aversion) is another question altogether.