Friday, February 3, 2017

5 Insights for Policy Innovators

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

A couple of weeks ago I traveled down to Washington DC with Jason to discuss policy innovation with a number of different US thought leaders / organizations (e.g. Partnership for Public Service, 18F, the OPM Innovation Lab, US Digital Service, GovLoop/GovDelivery, NASA, Deloitte, IBM, etc.). We thought it would be good to share some of the key findings from our discussions.

Spurring innovation can be as simple as turning an intentional blind eye

John Kamensky from the IBM Centre for the Business of Government regaled us with stories of government reinvention labs under Vice-President Gore. The principle was simple enough, central authorities articulate a small set of goals -- e.g. be more client centric, cut red tape, improve client satisfaction -- and then turn an intentional blind eye to any activities that might bump against corporate policies in trying to achieve those goals. Not everyone had to do it, “reinventing labs” were simply teams that self selected, invoked the shield they were offered, and went about doing good better. He called it “using fairy dust to break bureaucratic mythologies” because it didn’t rely on any structural changes. Now he did say that this approach can ruffle feathers because it can undermine the hierarchy and/or the gatekeepers but it's also an incredibly simple way to facilitate greater innovation within the enterprise at relatively low cost, it's replicable within and across organizations, and boils down to giving civil servants license, a sense of agency, and a stronger connection to outcomes and organizational priorities.

Innovation teams need partnership playbooks that articulate their terms

Many of the US innovation teams have developed playbooks that clearly articulate what they do and don’t do, who they work with, and how others can access their services. This gives everyone a clear sense of what is in and out of scope as well as the cost of doing business with the team. My observation is that many of the Canadian innovation teams lack this sort of specificity. Being able to develope and then clearly articulate your value proposition and the service(s) you can provide to the department (and for that matter the management teams that allocate its scarce resources) is of the utmost importance for innovation teams, while the inability to do so is their achilles heel.

If you want to attract projects to a department or agency’s innovation team, give it a budget that it can use to match funds

One of the biggest differences we found was that many of the US innovation teams (and fellowship programs) have a budget that allows them to match the funds of the project proponent. This makes working with the lab (or bringing on a fellow) more attractive to the proponents. This seems to have resulted in some interesting optics whereby some see innovation teams as a subsidy to core business (access to warm bodies) while others see the prospects of successful collaborations that produce results much greater than the status quo (supercharge your ROI). Regardless of the opinions on the ground, these teams continue to be supported by senior civil servants and politicians..This approach does require that innovation teams have a strong management approach and a process through which they vet incoming projects -- meaning it’s very much linked to the notion of playbooks mentioned above.


All of our visits reinforced the importance of documenting the impact that innovation teams are having. Some teams had sent a team member across the country to visit collaborators on ground in order to document and celebrate their stories, some teams used their playbooks to ensure collaborators’ objectives were documented and outcomes recorded, other teams benefited from reporting requirements enshrined in legislation, and some teams adopted a culture of reporting out for its inherent value of sharing lessons learned and demonstrating what’s possible.

Without this data, it’s difficult for a team to surface what they do exceptionally well and the conditions that need to be in play to do their best work (see playbooks, above), and it’s difficult to create a narrative that points, in real terms, to the impact.

If you want to use money to drive innovation, active budget hold backs are always better than passive asks to carve out funds.

Basically it’s really hard to force someone’s hand once you’ve already put the money it. Asking people to direct their money to innovative projects is always going to be less effective than making their receipt of that money contingent on innovation in the first place. By far one of our favorite conversations was with John Kamensky, he walked us through the history of public sector innovation from Clinton to Obama which was fascinating. He also provided a stellar policy innovation reading list that we wanted to share with all of you as well.


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