Deeper Innovation in Public Service

Guest Blogger - Peter Burchard

In the world of public sector innovation, there’s room for many possibilities and all players. What there isn’t room for is complacency. The public sector needs innovation and innovators. As students and practitioners of public administration, I ask you three questions:

  1. What’s your innovator’s manifesto?
  2. What’s your approach to innovation?
  3. How are you making local government better?

Innovation occurs on many fronts. The students in the class I teach in public sector innovation are focused on three types of innovation.

First, innovation can emerge through improved processes. Often, this type of innovation is made possible when employees learn the underlying skills of process improvement, systems thinking and project management. In Naperville, Illinois, employees who became skilled in these techniques were able to dramatically improve the system for new land development by eliminating over 100 antiquated and non-value added stepswhile making public processes more inviting and clear.

Second, innovation can come as a result of an alternative service delivery (ASD). As described in the book Alternative Service Delivery: Readiness Check edited by Kurt Thurmaier, ASD includes managed competition, interlocal agreements, and service consolidation.

Typically, the types of innovation described above serve to sustain public services and do not significantly curb long-term costs. The focus is on effectiveness.

However, for the public service administrator who is willing to go deeper, a third and more fiscally-focused type of innovation is needed. Welcome to disruptive innovation (DI). Today, DI in the public sector is rare. DI is well presented by Deloitte Press in the manual Public Sector Disrupted.

DI necessitates openness about an underlying problemthat in the public sector we tend to keep asking for more money for essentially the same products and servicesa proposition that is losing its appeal. Paraphrased from the manual:

“DI requires a new perspective where government responsibilities and customers can be seen as a series of markets that can be shaped in ways to find and cultivate very different, less expensive—and ultimately more effective—ways of supplying public services….
Disruptive innovation trades off pure performance in favor of simplicity, convenience… and ‘good enough’ solutions at a lower price.”

All public sector innovation requires a commitment to excellence. Deep innovation, however, will require public administrators who are more courageousperhaps even radicalfocused on long-term change, experimental in their disposition, and willing to encourage their teams to grow significantly new skills.

The results will be a permanent shift towards lower costs and a new type of public service effectiveness.

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