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FCW : January and February 2017
WILLIAM D. EGGERS is executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights. Commentary | WILLIAM D. EGGERS From GPS to rocket ships to email, it’s clear that the government can innovate. But lately the pace of technological change seems to accelerate far faster than the gov- ernment’s rate of change. When a person can order dinner with two swipes on his smartphone, waiting in leg-aching queues to register a business feels incredibly onerous. To close the innovation gap between the public and private sectors, governments should con- sider transitioning into “cognitive learning systems.” Such organiza- tions actively learn and adapt as a standard continuation of their processes, not under orders from above. The question is: If your agency was leaderless, would its natural momentum drive it to improve? A cognitive redesign of an orga- nization would incorporate core elements such as open functional- ity, innovation from “the edges,” a tolerance for failure, adaptable tal- ent pools and protection of critical voices. Those strategies increase the flow of new ideas, which an organization can then evaluate, test and deploy. Innovative government employ- ees represent a fraction of a nation’s enormous pool of talent and energy. Prizes, challenges and crowdsourcing let governments participate in collaborative public/ private ecosystems. The collective intelligence of thousands can iden- tify solutions that one hard-work- ing employee never would. Soliciting input from individuals, however, doesn’t replace observ- ing unusual ecosystems. When an ancient Ayurvedic cure for cholera in Bangladesh inspired a revolu- tionary treatment called oral rehy- dration salts (a precursor to Gato- rade) or when the U.S. government funded the expansion of a small nongovernmental organization that showed impressive results in help- ing homeless people, it represented the core meeting the edge. In business terms, the core is the network of professionals and resources where power accu- mulates, and the edge is where outsiders experiment to solve niche challenges. Young people repurposing technology occupy an edge. Emerging economies, where people maximize the use of mini- mal resources, represent another. Maybe Floyd in customer service who keeps finding new ways to placate disgruntled clients is an edge by himself. Knowledge flows can connect the resources at the core with innovation at the edge. Although it’s strategic to collect ideas from outside, innovative organizations must also change their cultures internally. First, they must shed their fear of failure. Bureaucracies tend to punish failure, which is memorable, and reward mediocrity, which doesn’t produce a metric you can pin to a file. But modern technology makes the cost of failure cheap and the pace of redesign rapid. Innovative companies — and governments — build failure into their attitudes: Fail quickly if you must, learn, and move on to the next iteration. Changing a culture requires changing the people. Rather than replace an entire agency with engi- neers fluent in agile methodology, the United Kingdom’s Department for Work and Pensions shuttled employees to six-week “digital boot camps,” where they learned concepts such as user-centric design and agile development, as well as specific skills, such as prototyping and wireframing. The program didn’t produce experts, but it did produce apprentices who could hold their own. Organizations can also nurture ideas with safe havens for low-risk innovation. So-called skunkworks with limited bureaucracy or test projects that don’t count against managers’ performance reviews can protect innovative ideas. Leaders must keep an open mind and free their employees from the pressure to produce any specific result — except what works. n Creating a culture of innovation in government To close the innovation gap between the public and private sectors, governments should become cognitive learning systems that constantly adapt to change 16 January/February 2017 FCW.COM If your agency was leaderless, would its natural momentum drive it to improve? 0217fcw_016.indd 16 1/24/17 9:36 AM
November and December 2016