Expanding a Culture of Innovation in Government

Governments have an opportunity to continue as leaders in innovation, but that role may require some changes in the leadership mindset and strategy.

Guest Commentary, Guest Commentary

April 10, 2017

5 Min Read
Gaurav Gujral, Accenture

Government has long been a major force in innovation, though many people do not see government in this light. There are thousands of government research projects that have led to breakthrough scientific advances, including Geospatial Positioning System (GPS) technology, the Human Genome Project that mapped the sequence of human DNA, and ARPANET, a pioneering network for sharing digital resources that spawned the creation of the Internet itself.

In fact, in many of these cases, unless government had taken the first steps with the risky, innovation seed-capital, the private sector would not have followed suit. Why then is it so difficult to imagine government building on these pockets of innovation to get to the next step, creating an internal culture of innovation within public workforces to face the challenges of tomorrow?     

We have the perfect storm brewing to help drive government to a higher level of innovation, namely a public sector environment characterized by rigid structures and services designed around organizations rather than citizen needs, combined with rapidly increasing demand for public services and advancements in technology. But changing the culture in any organization is not a simple thing. It takes leadership and cultivating an internal culture that welcomes innovative change and celebrates new ideas. The CEO (the department head when we are talking about a government agency) thus needs to assume the role of a Chief Enabling Officer or Chief Empowering Officer. 

The CEO focused on innovation appeals to basic human needs, values and emotions, and unleashes the "human capital" within their organizations by providing the right inspiration and motivation to the broad workforce to come forward with new ideas. They define the criteria for success, such as expected outcomes or results from innovation efforts, be that on an individual, team, or function level.

Top priorities in the job description can include:

  • Ensuring that innovation is an integral part of the strategy and prioritizing innovation activities

  • Establishing clear innovation objectives, goals, milestones and metrics with a balance between short and long-term demands

  • Allocating necessary resources (skills, time, financials, technology, data) and delegating decision making authority to the right individuals to help drive innovation

  • Defining the skills that innovation teams or champions need and how to gain them

  • Determining the appropriate amount of risk, uncertainty and organizational change acceptable in innovation efforts

Fostering Team Work

CEOs need to unleash the human capital within their organizations. Everyone in the organization needs to live and breathe the charter of innovation. This can only flourish when people are empowered by leadership to work collaboratively across organizational boundaries and when the ability to innovate is encouraged through well-defined processes, enabling tools, methods and data. Accelerating innovation requires a pervasive change of mind-set, with increased experimentation, controlled risk taking, and an agile response to new challenges.

There is no one path to achieve a culture of innovation, but best practices include:

  • Unleashing the “human capital” within an organization by encouraging the wider workforce to come forward with new ideas

  • Encouraging and supporting junior staff to launch new ideas without scepticism or fear of failure

  • Establishing safe space and neutral ground for testing ideas and developing solutions

  • Investing in an innovation toolkit including methodologies in human centred design and value co-creation and covering the dimensions of an innovation process

  • Measuring and defining input and output metrics, because what gets measured gets done

  • Empowering change champions in the organization and delegating decision making authority to the right individuals       

Government workforces should be empowered with the knowledge of the what, why and how to innovate, and be provided appropriate incentives to experiment, even if that means not succeeding at every endeavour. This agile and "fail-fast" approach is vital to the process of innovation, along with mechanisms to align goals, allocate resources and assign decision-making authority for innovation across the organization.

There are already government innovation incubators that have achieved some success. In the US, the State of New York has designated and is supporting 10 innovation "hot spots," one for each of the state's economic development regions. In Europe, the European House of Design Management project aims to effect knowledge transfer from the private to the public sector using tested design management models to develop management training tools and programs.  

There are also incubator style hubs where employees can build out ideas.  A good example is the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry ideas management system called I-Gen , a systematic and coordinated approach to managing ideas:

  1. I-Gen encourages staff to come up with ideas to improve the way the department works, and helps drive the ideas forward

  2. Provides support and tools to convert ideas into proposals, e.g. a dedicated platform, networks of coordinators and mentors, links to relevant documents and websites;

  3. Allows people to easily collaborate, and avoid duplication of similar ideas

  4. Accomodates scalability –  ideas can range from very small schemes to improve communication between branches, to larger projects that involve working with industry to change procedures

  5. Encourages appropriate teams, clearly defined roles (e.g. innovation champions, sponsors, etc.) and leadership to support the innovation system

Throughout government there are abundant opportunities for leaders to cultivate innovation on an ongoing basis, unlocking the value of experimentation and collaboration to deliver improved citizen services and public outcomes.

Gaurav Gujrol is the global management consulting and digital lead for Accenture’s employment and social services industry segment. Gujrol focuses on management consulting, digital and analytics business within the broader portfolio of Accenture's offerings and developing innovative solutions. He joined Accenture in 2007.

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