A BIG small idea?

I love government. Mostly for the vast majority of public servants, who are bright, devoted, and highly creative in a difficult organizational structure.

I also think – which won’t be surprising given the business that I am in – that fostering innovation in the public sector should be encouraged at every turn. I want public servants anywhere, at any level, to not only be creative but be motivated knowing that there are as many channels as possible for good ideas to be tested and potentially deployed.

Which is why we need to give them money.

I believe that governments should set up an Angel Fund that public servants can engage to test out their ideas that they have developed. It does not have to be a lot, in fact it should not be a lot, but it should be relatively easy to access .

Let’s back up a bit. In Bangladesh in 1976 a fellow named Muhamed Yunus started something called the Grameen Bank. The Bank’s purpose was to supply micro-

loans – extraordinarily small by just about anyone’s standards – to those living in abject poverty. To get a loan you did not need a credit rating and it was understoodthat if you defaulted, well, you defaulted…some key tripping points for trying to get out of the vicious poverty cycle. However, you did have to have an idea and you did have strong local peer communities encouraging you to succeed.

If you are at all familiar with Grameen you are aware of the tremendous success that they have had and the influence they are still having around the world including through many non-traditional loan programs in North America. I won’t go into naming a bunch of them but there are adaptations of Grameen everywhere now.

So, how would something like a self-contained Venture Fund for government work?

  • Government would direct departments to allocate a set percentage (.5%?) of current operating funds to that departments Venture Fund
  • Public servants would be required to put forward their idea, intended results, and use of Venture Fund monies. They would also need to set out a “team” that would work with them (usually people from within the organization) on the venture.
  • Certain restrictions would be placed on the number of ventures that could be run within any one area (i.e. Comms Branch had 100 people but wanted to run 25 ventures…not only wouldn’t work, just dumb)
  • Assuming that everything was in order, public servant would access funds
  • Funds would be small in nature…I’d say $500 to $20,000
  • Departments would re-purpose the return on their investments to a set amount (perhaps 150% of original set out for them) such that they would be able to increase the number of ventures funded if necessary
  • Departments would post their learnings on a regular basis to share inside and outside of government

So, would the public get their knickers in a twist over something like this? Some would, but i honestly believe most would not if approached and communicated properly. For instance…a) run a pilot in a branch of a department b) fail/learn c) document successes and expand program.

The benefits would include:

  • payoff through a real commitment to the creativity of the public sector
  • a (further, for some governments) step towards exiting the vicious innovation cycle
  • the image-changing effect for public servants and the public service
  • what I firmly believe will be a strong payoff on the investment of tax payer dollars. (It should be noted that Grameen has been completely self-funded for years, has a 97% recovery rate, and deposits amount to 150% of the outstanding loans…something I don’t think the pundits believed would happen when the idea came into practice.)
  • better public servants/sector, better government

I would love to see this put in place in Canada (at any level) but given the innovation and collaboration momentum in the U.S. from OGD it would be a natural to put in place at the federal and state level (and is probably in place at some local level, probably in California somewhere).

Interested in peoples thoughts and learnings on this…thanks.


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