Gov innovation requires optimism, failing in small ways

Monday - 2/7/2011, 3:30pm EST

Fred Dust, partner, IDEO

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Government innovation can sometimes sound like an oxymoron. But a new report from consulting firm IDEO and the Partnership for Public Service explains how federal employees can embrace innovation at their agencies.

Fred Dust, a partner at IDEO and leader of the Systems at Scale Group, told the DorobekINSIDER that the government faces extra hurdles to innovation compared with the private sector.

For example, only in government do political appointees and career employees have to work together toward a common cause, he said.

"There's real reason why sometimes [innovation] can feel slower in government," Dust said.

Innovation can seem like an added burden when feds are already asked to do more with less in the age of austerity.

However, a change in attitude can drive a change in workplace practices. Instead of seeing the budget problems, feds can reframe the problem as an opportunity to think about how to do things in a new, better way, he said.

"You need a renewed sense of optimism...It's primarily an act of optimism, saying yes, and saying we think we can actually make a change and we're impatient for change," Dust said.

He added that once you "scratch the surface," everyone in government wants to be optimistic.

The government is designed to perform reliably - "not to changing circumstances," according to the report. Failure is part of innovation but it's not something in government that is celebrated, Dust said. Government has major institutions - like Congressional committees, inspector general offices and the Government Accountability Office - that oversee agencies' work and have resulted in agencies being "highly defense and cautious," the report said.

But Dust said agencies will only learn if they can fail - in small ways - by trying new ideas.

The report offers tips for fostering government innovation:

  • Provide funding for "efforts that defy categorization."
  • Create a lab for testing and test in the early development phase to "learn faster and with less risk."
  • Train employees on innovation and connect with a mentor.
  • Use an innovation toolkit with technical instructions and tips for navigating change (communicating ideas, building support).

The concern is that if the government does not innovate, it will be left behind. Technology has changed the way government does business, and with the changes have come new expectations.

"At some point things break," Dust said. "The reason we innovate now is so we don't get to a breaking point."

And check out the DorobekINSIDER interview with Tim McManus of the Partnership for Public Service.