Report: 'Disruptive innovation' key to doing more for less

Tuesday - 2/21/2012, 8:53pm EST

In Depth interview with Bill Eggers, global director for the public sector, Deloitte Research

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Doing "more with less," is a catchphrase that has spread throughout the federal government, as agency budgets constrict. But critics contend that's all it is — a catchy slogan that has no basis in reality.

You could say Bill Eggers, global director of Deloitte Research's public-sector division, straddles both sides.

Eggers led a team of Deloitte GovLab researchers in preparing a report, "Public sector, disrupted: How disruptive innovation can help government achieve more for less."

But the title is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, he told In Depth with Francis Rose, by taking a clichι and turning it on its head.

"In this case, all the civil servants and others I speak with, when they hear 'more for less,' they roll their eyes," Eggers said. "It's met with disdain when they hear politicians talk about that. And the cynicism is not misplaced."

Budget-cutting is too often "an exercise in across-the-board spending cuts," he added. "In other words, it's doing more of the same with less people. And the inevitable result is not more with less; it's less for less."

Elusive goal in government

To truly make good on the more-for-less goal requires an entire shift in strategy, not just cuts to the budget, Eggers suggested.

"We see more for less in the economy and in our daily lives," Eggers said, citing as example the rise of Netflix's online streaming video, which has all but replaced the more cumbersome chain video-rental stores.

"I got more — more convenience, less cost, all sorts of variety — for less money. We see that in our daily lives all the time," he said. "And people say, 'Why can't I get that from government?'"

The key is disruptive innovation, the Deloitte report explains. That's a concept that is native to the computing, electronics and telecommunications industries — "where consumers are accustomed to steady price reductions and performance improvements over time," the report states.

The government, on the other hand, only seems to get more expensive to run and operate with each passing year.

The philosophy and the arithmetic behind disruptive innovation is in shifting away from (the Deloitte uses the term "shattering") the trade-offs between price and performance. The traditional philosophy has been if you want something done better or more comprehensively, it's going to cost you.

But there are already examples of programs and initiatives that have broken the mold. For example, the Defense Department's use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, costs "just a fraction of the tab" the Pentagon uses for traditional manned aircraft, the report notes.

As little as 15 years ago, drones were considered science fiction. Since then, they've "absolutely transformed warfare," Eggers said. "What I think we need to look at are: What are the equivalents in a lot of other areas like education and higher education and intelligence and so on?"

Government innovation not an oxymoron

The government is uniquely poised to play an important role in disruptive, innovative efforts, Eggers said.

"The U.S. government is the biggest buyer of stuff — of services and things ... And as a buyer, you're able to shape the market," he said.

He described three strategies for guiding agencies in innovative investments.

  • Start with a "destructive" hypothesis. "If you try to look at something solely in terms of what the current process is, it limits your ability to really think about what it could be in the future." For example, rather than thinking, "How do we improve schools," ask, "How can we better educate children to prepare them for the future workplace" — the end result may not include a brick-and-mortar school in the traditional sense.

  • Shape the ideaing. "A lot of these innovations are threatening to existing operations and existing ways of doing things," Eggers said. "So you need to be very careful about how you shape them so that they don't get killed early on." For example, it might be wiser to roll out a new transportation security initiative in a subway system, where such safety measures don't already exist, than at airports, where there are clear entrenched interests, he suggested.

  • Grow the idea. "Governments have a lot abilities to sort of grow these innovations over time," Eggers said, by slowly replacing a current approach with the new one as well as shifting funding and ending subsidies.
RELATED LINKS

Full report — "Public sector, disrupted: How disruptive innovation can help government achieve more for less

Deloitte's "Disrupted" page