Sad but true: local government is not great at innovation. There are structural reasons why that is the case:

– Unlike commercial companies there is no market penalty for maintaining obsolete processes and infrastructure. There is nothing like the tight and motivating feedback loop that a product manufacturer faces when their customers switch to a competitor’s product.

– Also, the silo structure of local government often blocks innovation by reinforces the assumptions and worldviews of single disciplines, inhibiting the cross-disciplinary fertilisation that innovation needs. In this space, even slightly different ideas can be deemed heretical.

I’m just reading a book called Resilience by David Eagleman. He explains this problem beautifully in the story of two research laboratories trying to solve the same problem.

“Lab A was headed by a brilliant research scientist but a rather self-similar research staff. Lab B was filled with diverse scientists: a chemist, a medical doctor, a geneticist and so on. Two members of Lab B solved the problem in two minutes at a meeting and Lab A was still working incrementally on a solution 2 months later.”

A nice article published last week in the Stanford Social Innovation Review provides a very useful guidance tackling structural barriers to innovation in local government. Surveying hundreds of initiatives and players, the Harvard Business School researchers concluded that, yes indeed, governments have structural impediments to innovation, but there are five things they can do to reduce those impediments:

1) Managers can carry out low risk experiments by placing “small bets” on new ideas. In other words, prototype new ideas on a small scale first.

2) Study ways to phase out underperforming processes and infrastructure. For example, but having two systems run simultaneously while the new one proves itself.

3) Have tight feedback loops between citizens and public servants. The ability to gauge public reactions and detect frustrations without having to wait until the next election. This, of course, calls for innovation in “community engagement” and smart phones are likely to be a great enabling technology here.

4) Recognise and support innovators inside your organisations. Reward them by putting their ideas put into practice. Below is a nice example from South East Water in Melbourne. It’s an innovation tracking board in the cafeteria that displays the progress of staff-initiated innovations from idea to fruition.

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5) Use budget constraints to drive innovation. How hard can that be?

They deconstruct the example of how Washington D.C. shifted from people putting cash in parking meters, to paying through a mobile phone app, on the spot, without requiring a meter.

What the article doesn’t deal with is how you generate new ideas in the first place. Fortunately there are plenty of ways. “Innovation practice” and “Design Thinking” are subjects getting a huge amount of attention nowadays in the commercial world.

I’m applying some of these ideas in an interesting innovation project at Wyndham City Council that I’ll share in a later blog.

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