The path to identifying and adopting innovation in government is complex and non-linear. Government innovation teams and non-profits will have to work closely to communicate needs, coordinate ideas, and anticipate challenges before they arise.
The Challenges Of Government Innovation
Governments face a few specific challenges that any innovator in the space will need to be aware of, whether inside government or working with it.
Stakeholder Concerns: Above all, it needs to be remembered that governments serve the people. Unlike non-profits or corporations, a government’s “customer base” is everyone who holds citizenship.
This presents governments with a careful balancing act that needs to be struck with innovation. For example, if you’re going to add a new page to a website, you’ll need to remember that not everyone who visits will necessarily have the technical skills and resources a private organization takes for granted. In many cases, you may be dealing with groups that have limited online access or may not have access to the internet at all.
Political Realities: Another is the ever-present question of how something will be perceived by voters. Even when an innovation may be a good idea, the overall politics of the moment have to be considered before pitching any changes. A careful consideration of how politics play into how an innovation might be received can help maintain momentum.
Diffuse Sources of Innovation: Any government has a wide variety of sources for innovation, from a state’s university system to national think-tanks offering white papers on abstract policy concerns. This can be a challenge when they come to different conclusions on the same topic. Yet drawing together these viewpoints is often both politically necessary and useful, especially when they’re respected by all involved.
Funding: While any organization has an ethical and legal obligation to use the money in its budget properly, governments have a particular concern about how projects are paid for. Few government organizations get to determine their own budgets and often have obligations that have to be met with those funds. Similarly, concerns about outside funding may collide with political realities, depending on who’s paying for what and what the program is supposed to achieve.
A clear and concise discussion of funding will help mitigate this challenge.
Proper Context: Any innovation will struggle in the absence of a proper context, but government innovation, in particular, can run into this challenge. It stems in part from the issue of stakeholders. For example, if an innovation applies to schools, the question many voters without children in the school system will ask is what benefit this use of tax dollars has for them, directly or indirectly.
Putting innovation in a proper context, showing that it solves both a pressing need and will have a long-term benefit for the community, will assist in moving an innovation forward.
Evidence and Analysis: Anybody who works in government knows that decision-making is driven by passion as much as statistics. Yet, at the same time, data and statistics do matter. It’s important to demonstrate not just the anecdotal side of your approach but also the data behind it and what that data means.
Disclosure: As government is paid for by the people, it’s often accountable to the people in ways other organizations aren’t. The innovation process will need to be transparent to a high degree to accommodate this requirement, which may in turn impact who participates in the innovation process.
Overcoming Government’s Innovation Challenges
All of these variables can combine in unexpected ways as the innovation process unfolds, and it can be challenging for government innovation. There are, however, ways to simplify what can be a complex path.
- Prepare The Ground: Before any innovation process, or innovation itself, is launched, the team should look at all the realities on the ground, what politics might be in play, what other policies might be pursued, what funding is available, and what stakeholder concerns might be present.
- Pick A Manageable Scale: Governments are often a set of interlocking scales; all politics is local, but what happens at the federal and state level has an impact on the local level and vice versa. A small innovation in a federal agency is easier to implement than a large one, and a big change is easier to pilot at the local level than at the federal. An innovation platform can help keep these scales manageable.
- Align Goals: Outside innovators, in particular, will need to find government departments and committees with goals that dovetail with theirs or are close enough that they can be aligned. This puts everyone on the same page at the start.
- Check For Obligations: What’s required to be disclosed? How is it documented and made available? Who gets access to it and why? What stakeholders will be involved in the process? Thoughtful consideration of what people need in order to do their jobs both helps keep up the momentum and builds commitment.
- Develop A Flexible Process: Government is complex by necessity; even a small town is going to have a broad spectrum of interests, needs, and requests. Before embarking on any innovation process, focus on the ability of the process itself to fit in anybody who might need to get on board. This should be reflected in the platforms you use to gather ideas and communicate, as well.
- Set Clear Expectations: An advantage for innovators is that they work in an iterative process that incorporates feedback and refines ideas with it. Making it clear from the outset that this will be a collaborative process will limit friction and encourage others to help make ideas their own. This includes setting milestones and inviting collaboration from stakeholders.
- Keep A Schedule Of Obligations: Governments have cycles and schedules, and that includes when reports and other materials have to be available. Having those on a calendar will make them easier to develop without needing to take momentum away from the innovation process.
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