Encouraging Innovation

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light-bulb.jpgMany political analysts and think tanks are pointing to growing challenges facing the country that the next President will have to address – issues ranging from healthcare reform to climate change.  Presidential candidates are offering solutions or are promising innovation.

Just what is “innovation” anyway?  Can government do it?

In 2006, IBM sponsored a global survey of corporate and government executives on what they saw as critical challenges.  They thought the most important opportunities to being successful  was to embrace a systematic approach to innovation as a was of adapting in a rapidly changing world  The IBM report defined “innovation” as “new ideas or current thinking applied in fundamentally different ways resulting in a significant change.”  It characterized innovation as having three dimensions:

  • Business model innovation is a fundamental change in the way an organization does business—the way it interacts with its customers, uses its resources, and views itself. While this is typically difficult in government, it does happen.  For example, the Veterans Health Administration in the 1990s shifted its emphasis in delivering healthcare from in-patient hospital care to out-patient clinic-based care.
  • Operational innovation, where an organization improves its effectiveness and efficiency at tactical or core process/function level.  An example is the US Air Force Materiel Command’s designation of chief operating officers for key lines of business responsible for managing costs, not managing budgets. 
  • Services or product innovation, where an organization delivers new programs or citizen-facing services.  For example, the city of Philadelphia is beginning to provide city-wide WIFI wireless internet access to its citizens.

Government is typically not seen as fostering an innovative culture, but during the Clinton Administration, his reinventing government initiative promoted the use of reinvention labs.  These labs were seen as places to test new ways of doing work, in exchange for flexibility from agency administrative rules.  While hundreds of labs were created and both a GAO report and outside observers felt they were good platforms for innovation, the approach was discontinued at the end of the Clinton Administration.

Should the next President develop a governmentwide innovation campaign?  Shoiuld he or she encourage specific approaches?  Should it be kept centralized, or should it encourage “a thousand flowers to bloom?”

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