If you work in government, it’s likely that you’ve stared longingly at pictures your friends have posted of them having an afternoon mimosa break, playing ping pong, or enjoying a nap pod in whatever hip startup office they are working at. Realizing a ping pong ball has never even entered your office, you probably wonder, “is there any way to change office culture in government?” In years past, most govies have answered this question with a resigned “no, probably not.” However, the need for innovation across government is becoming increasingly apparent and there is no reason it can’t be applied to culture too.
In order to explain the ins and outs of breaking down the norms of bureaucracy in daily government life Geoff Orazem, CEO and Founder of Eastern Foundry; Joshua Marcus, Senior Advisor for Policy Innovation at Department of Defense; Sidney Olinyk, CEO and Co-Founder of Duco; Sarah Heck, Chief of Staff for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the State Department; and Greg Behrman, CEO and Founder of NationSwell sat down for a panel discussion, Creating a Startup Culture in Government, at the Next Generation of Government Training Summit.
From their advice three trends became clear:
- You can solve public sector problems with private sector tools
This is much easier said than done. Heck emphasized, “the hardest thing we face as government workers is breaking out of silos and bending bureaucracy.” The first step to achieving this is making it about the people. Heck explained, “people have to want to work on projects that are not flashy or typically government. Once you have people willing to do this, you can start moving forward on innovation projects.” Some of the ways she has drawn from the public sector include breaking down hierarchical structures, working across agencies, and creating a framework that is conducive to new ideas. She emphasized, “in order to achieve innovation in government culture you have to make people agile enough that they are able to work innovatively within the confines of the government and out in the private sector.”
- Public-private partnerships are golden
The public has come to expect the same user experience they are getting from the private sector from the government. “This means that the government has to start partnering with the public sector in order to do this most effectively,” Orazem explained. For example, many government offices are bogged down by constant emails when an instant messaging system would be more effective. With an instant messaging system, govies can more effectively communicate, allowing them to have more clear and faster interactions with the public, enhancing internal processes and the user experience.
Olinyk, a public servant turned entrepreneur, hopes her platform will eventually be able to be one half of public-private partnerships. Her product, Duco, is an online, on demand platform that connects businesses with experts for quick phone calls where they can seek advice and information. She emphasized, “it would be wonderful if down the line, we are able to set up a partnership with government, where govies could come to us for the information they need, innovating the way they work.”
- Regulatory environments are not a death sentence for innovation
Highly regulated agencies make innovating workplace culture even more difficult. However, the panelist assured that there are ways around this. Heck advised those who work in regulated environments to start small. “Even if it’s just lunch with someone in a different division, you have to start practices that break out of silos. Build communities of practice in your own agency and eventually you’ll be able to move up and go to Congress to discuss modifying regulations,” she explained.
Orazem added that you have to reframe how you think about innovation. He said, “You need to cut in half the time you spend learning how to innovate and use half of that time learning how to be a salesman.” Individuals hoping to innovate have to sell their ideas to management and the agency as a whole.
Innovating government culture is not an easy task, but it is not impossible. You may not be moving ping pong tables into your office by the end of the week, but by starting small, you can effect the change you want to see in your workplace culture.
This blog post is a recap of a session that took place at the recent Next Generation of Government Summit. Want to see more great insights that came out of NextGen? Head here.