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Entrepreneurial Thinking in Government

Government innovation has been de rigeur in Canada for some time now. Words such as transformation and disruption have entered the popular bureaucratic discourse, and federal and provincial governments alike are promoting strategies to formalize this new thinking. Public servants are regularly encouraged to take risks unimaginable to their staid, routine-obsessed forebears, and to generate out-of-the-box solutions in conjunction with the accomplishment of daily work.

Some of my previous writings on this site have referenced the importance of divestment as innovative activity, while others have focused on the crucible spaces where innovation can occur. One thing is certain: while innovation is top of mind for public administrators, ideas can be found everywhere, sprouting from every nook and cranny of the bureaucratic structure as staff grapple with finding better ways of doing things.

This can get complicated when bureaucrats are simultaneously asked to advance “business as usual” and develop “the next big thing”! New ideas can easily get trampled in the toil of due diligence and issue management, ending up shelved for another day that doesn’t come. So when public servants have ideas, big, small and medium-sized, what do they do with them? How can ideas be formalized and brought forward in a way that gets traction?

Enter the entrepreneur. With all due respect to the irrepressible innovators among us bureaucrats, the public service has not typically attracted entrepreneurial thinkers. While many imaginative folks end up in government roles, imagination is not typically the first competency expected or sought in a public administrator.

A 2017 report from the OECD on Innovation remarks on how the public sector is built to sustain existing solutions, not to challenge them. It is practically “common knowledge” that innovative thinking has been historically discouraged in the bureaucracy; yet Styhre challenges that notion in his 2007 work, The Innovative Bureaucracy, noting that innovation lies at bureaucracy’s core. He states, “this is how bureaucracy works: through ceaseless differentiation and integration, through oscillating between openness and closure.”

Which brings us to the importance of entrepreneurial thinking in government innovation, and in the public sector in general. If we define innovation as the creation of something meaningfully unique, how do public servants: 1) routinely inject innovative thinking into their work, either in an ad-hoc or systematic way, and 2) express those ideas in a way that they are heard and potentially even actioned? How do we get public servants to think like entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurial thinking is, by its nature, outward-facing rather than inward-facing and requires a different perspective than many public administrators are used to cultivating. Systems like Innovation Engineering are growing in popularity among public servants as administrations encourage out-of-the-box thinking as a way to solve problems faster and produce better outcomes.

In subsequent posts, I will talk more about Idea Management and the quest for a way to manage the ideas of staff which can start to come fast and furious when the fire of innovation is stoked. I will also address the importance of a good and appropriate pitch that strikes the right notes for senior management.

Today I want to leave you with this question: how can we encourage and support bureaucrats to be more like entrepreneurs? Further to that, if, as Dixon suggests, the “conservative nature of a bureaucracy isn’t a bug, but a feature” – how do we go about re-writing the code so that public administration attracts more transformative thinkers in the future?

It’s easier to start making round pegs than it is to fit square pegs in round holes. The nature of the public service is changing, and the old ways are not coming back. The future of public administration is transformation – and it’s high time we started supporting public servants to scuttle the old systems that keep governments entrenched in non-value-added work.

Jessica Drakul is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She currently works in a provincial government in Canada. She is the Chair of the Manitoba Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) Board and also Vice President of the IPAC National Board in her role as Chair of the IPAC National body of 19 regional groups (Regional Group Council).  Read her posts here

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