The Innovation Discourse Disconnect

Friday, June 16, 2017

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

I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of irony walking through the annual Innovation Fair a few weeks ago on the way to a kickoff meeting for a new initiative I'm working on.

I’ll spare you the detail but my observation is that there is a fundamental disconnect between the public face of public sector innovation -- which manifests in events such as the well-attended, high energy, social media friendly innovation fair – and the quiet and difficult backroom discussions about policies, exemptions, expected results, and (of course) accountability.

Now, the following comes with all the usual caveats. There’s a lot at play. No one has all the answers. I'm not naming names. And it's always easy to be an armchair innovator and call out the problems.

But all that aside, there are a number of things that seem self-evident and far too often I’ve seen our own Canadian politeness get in the way of calling a spade a spade and unlocking the value that can bring to the table. So let's be honest about a few things (excuse my stream of consciousness):

Policies exist for a reason – they set the frame and baseline.

There’s a whole accountability infrastructure in place to ensure those policies are followed.

This is a good thing, accountability is important. But so too are achieving outcomes in the public interest. There's an equation we've yet to define about complex relationship between accountability and outcomes that we've all got views on and they differ greatly. This is playing out all over our organizations at all times.

One can never mount an argument against accountability. Which is to say that no one is against accountability. One can however, be against risk -- the foil of accountability. Everyone is against risk.

This makes accountability culture the dominant in government, it sets normative behaviour and creates incentives.

Innovation by its very nature seems to fall outside of standard operating procedures. It provokes the accountability infrastructure and those whose job it is to enforce it.

This creates conflict. This conflict is about things that are open to a degree of interpretation (rules, norms, etc) but plays out inter-personally among people.

The balance of power in this equation is always tipped in the favour of those enforcing accountability by virtue of policy (and history) being on their side. This means they set the bar, and theirs is the language for negotiation. Even when we speak about taking 'smart risks' we do so in the language of accountability (otherwise we'd simply take action).

This means that the burden of proof always falls to those who propose something new. They have to martial evidence and present a compelling case and even then the result is typically time limited agreement (e.g. a ‘pilot’) on condition of additional oversight and compliance measures.

During these negotiations (which is often theatre), we spend a lot of time hypothesizing about what the 'powers that be' actually want or need to feel comfortable about with the 'inherent' 'risks' posed by a given 'innovation', but we rarely just pick up the phone and ask them for an early signal check. This often takes the form of invoking the name of the organization, a position of authority, or even an elected official when asking a question or demanding evidence. In other contexts some may even call it fear-mongering. Conjuring threats that haven't actually been substantiated and too few are willing to call someone's bluff.

In practice this means doing what we've always done is always easier than trying something new. This is likely where the idea that "innovation requires heroic effort" comes from and reinforces an 'us versus them mentality'.

This is why we end up with perpetual skunk works at the peripheries of our organizations rather than addressing systemic barriers. Innovative forces are finding individual paths of least resistance. These paths tend to be personality driven rather than organizationally decided. This is innovation in fits and starts, not innovation as transformation.

All of this is exacerbated by the fact that the pro-innovation discourse is often initiated by the same centers of power that have the ability to grant or withhold the authorities required to actually execute meaningfully against that discourse. Speaking to the importance of innovation -- sending the signal -- may be important but it pales in comparison to actually leaning into the hard work of systematically setting the stage for it.

Finally, (and in fairness) those who would give permission -- even the most permissive of permissions -- will always fall short of the expectations of those who would seek them because the givers bear the burden of having to consider the whole system at once while the seekers enjoy the luxury of entertaining only their own ideas and machinations.