6 Reasons Why Government Is Not More Innovative

Steve Denning recently wrote a great post titled How To Make Government Innovative Again. In his post Denning asks the following:

Why isn’t the Government generally more agile? Why isn’t innovation part of everything government does? Denning’s answer to these questions are: “Simple. The constraints on talented people who work in government agencies are enormous.” Denning lists six reasons why government is not more innovative.

1. Public sector agencies often have no clear mission

When an agency tries to satisfy everyone, it usually ends up satisfying no one.

2. Politics often intervenes

Legislators, intent on exercising control, constrain the agency from innovating in healthy directions.

3. Agencies’ core competence: survival

In a political war zone, it is not surprising that agencies develop a core competence in survival.

4. The public sector is afflicted by management fads

Public sector agencies also suffer invasions of successive management fads from the private sector. Managers learn to keep their heads down, knowing that “this too shall pass.”

5. Top managers don’t stay for long

The political heads of agencies are often political appointees who don’t stay for long. They are sometimes dismissive of previous activities of the agency and want to launch something “new” that they can call their own. They are often gone before much can happen. In this world, it is often safer for middle managers to wait for instructions and do what they are told, rather than stick their necks out for something that might become entangled in a political dogfight.

6. Staff are often demoralized

Living in a political war zone can be dispiriting, even for people at high levels.

Almost all of the reasons that government is not more innovative or that talented employees cannot make creative things happen, stem from politics. At the local level, I believe that a professional county or city manager can make a difference on all six of the above items. A professional manager that is evaluated every year has a vested interest in establishing a clear mission. A trained professional manager that does not have to campaign to win an election and who has the authority to hire and fire department heads will select people based on qualifications and not on politics. Overall, a municipality that is managed by a professional manager, usually has less of a political environment.

If you are interested in local government that is more innovative and where talented people can make a difference with their skills then encourage the adoption of a professional manager form of government. In my home town of Buffalo, NY (the third poorest city in the nation), machine politics has created a government where politics, patronage and campaign cash drive government decisions more than new ideas. The only hope I see for turning things around is professional management, otherwise the six obstacles identified above will not change.


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Julie Chase

In Fed Goverment, in my area anyway…..your “mission” is clearly stated, written down and no deviation allowed. In case you missed it, see directive #: 45678D para 4, item C. Every job description or PD, as they are called, outline what YOU are doing for the mission. The directive/order/policy mentions your PD “position” and what it does for your organization. Even when you suggest innovation….in let’s say “procurment”, you are met with someone whose PD in another organization tells you, it can’t be done. Lots of “gatekeepers”. Look, we are just following the directive/order/policy. I think state/local have a bit more leeway than feds.

Dannielle Blumenthal

I’m not sure the premise of the title is correct. Government employees are as innovative as anyone else. We are biased to think that they (we) are not because of the popular images on TV. In my experience what happens is that employees generate innovation, then something happens to create a barrier between idea and execution. The items above (all valid) seem more like the barrier.

Mark Sullivan

I’d suggest that there is a distinction between innovative individuals and innovative organizations (institutions). There are probably just as many innovative individuals in government as there are in any other sector (perhaps even more given the complexity of the systems In which they operate). the institution of government, however,n may not be innovative for all the reasons listed above.

And perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Citizens rely on government to provide security, predictability, and sustainability. The risk-taking necessary to achieve the type of innovation we see in private industry is an anathema to this fiduciary responsibility. In that sense, perhaps we shouldn’t seek this kind of innovation, but rather leverage the comparative advantage of different sectors through contracting, partnerships, and collaborations.

Dannielle Blumenthal

Maybe the real reasons organizations don’t innovate is that total efficiency renders most of the employees useless as technology takes over.

Julian Scadden

Reason #6 is a major contributing factor in all sectors (public or private). That is why this article is best with the leadership tag. Some innovators fall naturally into behaviors that innovate while others need to be led, groomed and taught through mentoring. If the environment is not conducive to innovation (which the public sector is stereotyped as see #2) then Reason #5 happens. And reason #3 is the safest place for the organization as well as the voting public. Gov Loop is pretty innovative and so is this perspective – thanks Paul!

John Evans

#6 is a major factor in my agency, with #2 and #4 also contributing. I have to laugh at the notion technology can replace a significant portion of employees and result in greater efficiency. Not in my agency, and especially not in my division. Anyone who has actually done my job knows this kind of thinking is wrongheaded, and like most fads, it too shall pass. We’re actually seeing increasing complaints from the public about over-reliance on automation and technology.