Is Innovation Possible in Government?


EntrepreneurFor some, the very notion of innovation in government is an anachronism, where government is the stifling force of innovation, and all that is truly innovative comes from the private sector.

A recent interview in Government Technology a publication geared toward “solutions for state and local government,”  with Rancho Cordova City Manager Ted Gaebler poses another possibility.  In 1992 Mr. Gaebler wrote the book, Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector. Written with co-author David Osborne, it “influenced a generation of public policy experts and managers. Gaebler and Osborne argued that governments needed to rethink industrial-era bureaucracies and develop new techniques suited to the Information Age.”

Twenty years later, Mr. Gaebler is the city manager for Rancho Cordova and recently the National Civic League named that town one of it “All American Cities for 2010, an award that’s based on innovation, civic engagement, inclusiveness and civic achievement.”

Entrepreneurial government, according to Mr. Gaebler, “connotes ownership and presumably owners are more careful with things than employees.”  By that he means that public employees would care about the bottom line and retaining the customer.

He says, “If our employees think like owners, they will be more careful with resources; they will shut off the lights when they leave and, most important, they will think about ways to make money beyond just raising taxes.”

The problem with government is that when you go to work for it, “you usually are asked to leave half your brain at the door because all the government ever asks you to do is to focus on saving money. Entrepreneurial government gets our employees thinking about how they can raise money – so reusing existing resources fits into that, also not doing nonsense that doesn’t pay for itself.”

Ted Gaebler argues that one of the keys to a successful government is creating an environment where it is okay for employees to take risks.

“Public employees are very fearful of doing something out of the norm that might cost them or their colleague their job – or worse, cost an elected official their job,” he said. “They’re not paid to take risks and the system does not typically reward risk or failure, so what’s the point?”

But he argued, “Yet, the nation’s 23 million public employees do creative things at their churches on weekends or at their yoga class. They chair committees, they speak in front of people and they raise funds. But we never tap into this wonderful wholeness of who they are.”

So he thought, “Why don’t I create an organization where people can bring those outside talents inside?”

“But if people are going to be creative, they can’t come into an environment that penalizes mavericks,” Mr. Gaebler warned. “I need to lend them what I call my ‘cloak of protection’ from the City Council or the press if they do something innovative and screw up. I try to find early examples of actually protecting somebody so that they know that I have the capability to do that and the mindset to do that. Somebody who has been around a long time like me has a very long cloak.”

A matrix team is a group of city employees from across departments, functions and job titles, that are brought together in order to complete a task.

These teams are assigned to work on issues that they care about. They are typically chaired by those with a passion for a cause, but who are not a department head.

“That has proven to be very successful. It usually results in a better decision – although not always – but it certainly results in a decision that’s understood by the people who will be affected by it. And it’s not imposed from the top,” Mr. Gaebler said.

Ted Gaebler told GovTech that they have a number of ways to identify people’s talents in order to better utilize them.

“I spend a lot of time personally investing in people – asking questions about their background and schooling,” he said. “We also do a lot of work with DiSC Management style assessments. We have done 20 of them, and so we all sort of know what each other’s personality or management style is.”

He added, “Another thing we do is bring in people from the academic community or from the media and let them ask questions. We’ve had visitors from Australia, China and Japan. We do a lot of reading of outside things, and we send a lot of people to conferences.”

In the era of tight budgets, however, many communities have cut down on travel and training.  Recently, the city of Davis sent a huge team, much of it funded from private sector sources, to Washington DC to lobby governmental leaders, which also put its team on the map.

Mr. Gaebler argued, “The dumbest thing that governments do by far is cut back on investments in people and their training and skill building – these are the things that cause new ideas to seep in. You should invest in new ideas, new skills and new collaborative agreements during times of crisis.”

He said that they have had a budget surplus in every year since they started.  They currently have $28 million in the bank, but that’s about $10 million down from the peak year, so they have had some layoffs and cutbacks.

He said, “. But we didn’t have anything that destroyed morale. We gave the people we laid off [enough] severance pay that made them go away happy.”

About these tough decisions Mr. Gaebler said, “Now I have money that I can invest in anything that comes along, and we haven’t missed a beat on training. And we still get very high approval ratings in our biannual public opinion survey.”

“It is all a matter of choices,” he said.

Still, like most communities, they had to cut back the number of cops, and change their pension system.

“Some people think they can’t change these costs, but governments have to evolve,” he said. “I think that [our annual budget of] $47 million – with the possible exemption of the rental on City Hall – is all up for grabs and it is all optional.”

Ted Gaebler argued that “the quickest way to reinvent governments is through technology.”

He added, “It is the least resisted way, and it is among the fastest ways to break down patterns of doing things because people accept it. Technology is the fastest way for me to achieve my objective, which is helping governments get better. So we have tried to embrace it.”

“I am not sure we’re at the leading edge of technology – I am pretty sure that we are not – but we are interested in where the leading edge is,” he said. “We’re using virtual desktops and most of us have iPads. There are only four people here who get hard copies of the City Council agenda. We no longer have the big packets that go out and agenda deadlines and running to Kinko’s. We are past all that stuff.”

He concluded, “All the council members have VPN access if they choose. Many of us can work at home and do. Our code enforcement folks use wireless iPads to do their stuff. And the cops, of course, all have computers in their cars. So the meat-and-potatoes productivity tools are there.”

As all of this is happening right down the road, the question is, from our perspective, can the city of Davis follow suit?

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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8 thoughts on “Is Innovation Possible in Government?”

  1. Frankly

    I have a lot of experience managing business innovation projects in both the private and the public sector. There are two primary difference: the caliber of decision makers, and the sense of urgency.

    In the public sector I found a much higher percentage of management decision-making malaise from either incompetency, or management change risk-aversion. People seemed more apt to have lost their motivation to work hard, to take risks, to make things happen. Sometime they were just in over their heads in knowledge and understanding. You got the general sense that everyone was trying to make it to retirement without screwing up. But emotions would still run, and there was also the standard political maneuvering competing for attention. Except in this case it was manifest by blocking progress instead of driving change.

    Maybe because of this demonstration from management, the employees generally lacked a sense of urgency. Key stakeholders would be difficult to get time with. They would have screwy schedules and work part-time. In the private sector I could schedule meetings for early morning and later afternoon as frequently as twice a week. We could people to work late, and on weekends. In the public sector it would often take weeks just to find a space where all the project participants would be available.

    This difference is profound in terms of being able to implement change within the organization. If you look at tech companies and what they accomplish in just a few years, it can take years just to replace a single line of business software application in even a medium-sized government agency. There is a much higher rate of failure with these projects.

    Innovation is certainly possible in government. Some organizations do better than others. It depends on leadership.

    But I think there are two factors contributing to much poorer success in the public sector:

    1 – Lack of natural incentive to achieve. Basically, there is no profit reward in public-sector business. It can take as long and cost as much as the maximum capacity… and even exceed that capacity.

    2 – Less risk of consequences for poor performance. This is at least partially due to unions protecting worker job security. Then you get an entitlement mentality in the workforce… one that gives labor a sense of entitled power over management decisions that affect them. They can effectively block change, and management learns to not demand change as a result.

    Correcting for these two things will go a long way in helping government innovate. Good luck.

  2. David M. Greenwald

    “There are two primary difference: the caliber of decision makers, and the sense of urgency.”

    But isn’t that a management issue and in fact the very thing he’s trying to fix? The key question is do you think it can be fixed? Your response was – good luck, but why is that your response? We certainly pay people enough to get high enough caliber employees, so it’s really a matter of changing the culture, no?

  3. Frankly

    [i]so it’s really a matter of changing the culture, no[/i]

    First it is leadership. Then it is the ability of leadership to change personnel required to change the culture.

    Think of it this way… when you have to change a work culture you have a percentage of your workforce that has learned how to work in the old culture. It is like they have walked down this path. Now you want them to walk down another path. But to do so, for many of them you need to walk them back to where the two paths converge. Some will not go. Many will resist. The energy, skill and persistence it requires to get everyone moving down the other path of change is profound. So, what you need to be about to do is change your workforce. In major work culture change, it is not uncommon that 1/3 get it, 1/3 can be changed, and 1/3 are impediments that have to be let go and replaced if you are to succeed. When I write “good luck”, it is because in the public-sector you cannot get rid of the 1/3 that will block you for every change they do not like. In the private sector we reorganize departments, downsize, outsource, etc…

  4. David M. Greenwald

    “First it is leadership. Then it is the ability of leadership to change personnel required to change the culture.”

    So let’s look at two examples. One is the Rancho Cordova example and the other is Davis – do you see these things at work in these two cities?

  5. SODA

    Could it be that public sector jobs attract workers who are risk aversive? To me the key is empowerment and the most innovative companies especially lone or small businesses are the most and public sector the least.
    The discussions we have had on this blog about city staff layoffs etc and how terrible that would be and how only attrition has been used except for tree trimmers VS private sector where I would venture all of us have been touched by layoffs in our work lives, either us or a close family member. Same terrible consequences but private sector workers have com to accept that as a possibility, business is business.
    That is not true of public sector…maybe until now.

  6. Frankly

    [i] do you see these things at work in these two cities?[/i]

    One has a gifted academic gene pool, and the other does not.

    I think you will be hard pressed to come up with even a very slight percentage of examples to compare against those that I will provide.

  7. hpierce

    Developers would love you, Frankly… they try to bend/break rules, insist that they are taxpayers, so do not want the agency to charge for the cost of service, and demand that they get immediate service, even when they change their minds about what they want monthly. And the public folks processing their apps will not be compensated more one way or the other (and a good thing, as that could easily lead to corruption).

    As you say, Good Luck.

    frankly may not get it at a

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