Risk aversion is killing local government innovation

Usual disclaimers here. One persons view etc.

Innovation, to me, is experimenting. It’s playing with things and seeing different outcomes depending on different inputs but most of all, it’s about never before tested inputs. If you just re-invent the wheel, you’ll just get the same outcomes. Always get, always got yada yada etc etc.

Instead, different inputs mean thinking differently. It means approaching systems and processes like a chemist – you’ve got 15 different chemicals which could equate to 15 different people, Departments, sets of data or system configurations – and you sit in your lab and systematically and with testing, lots of testing, and recording of outcomes, you work out what is possible and what is not with those 15 different outputs.

It’s not an instant process. It’s not predictable. If it’s actually innovative, I don’t believe there will be prior case studies to reassure, nor predictability even in outcomes to inputs. In the same way that two people can come from exactly the same backgrounds and turn out differently, an app, for example, launched in one area may absolutely bomb in another and we are not yet far enough advanced and with enough data at our fingertips to predict that.

Now an app is an expensive experiment. But there are other experiments which are not expensive, or rather may seem expensive on the surface but where the cost can be minimised with a little attention to detail. This reduction in cost leaves you to focus on the true desired outcome with is ‘will this work here?’ Is this of value, who to if so, what’s the investment, what’s the persistence of outcome?

Innovation isn’t tidy. It cannot be neatly explained in zeroes and ones. I believe it should be chaotic, disordered and yes, involve a little bit of risk.

Local government as a national entity is mostly risk averse. So while I do not believe it is impossible to innovate within local government, I do believe there needs to be a culture change and a fundamental acceptance that innovation is difficult. For some it is painful, frustrating, annoying, irritating, stressful and a constant source of sleepless nights.

Being first means taking risk. It can be minimised but it can never be eliminated.

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Jaime Gracia

Same issues here Louise. I work at the U.S. federal level, and the degree of calcified aversion to change and risk aversion often has a paralyzing effect on IT. Innovation to me is trying to leverage solutions that may not be completely known, have risk, but if managed properly, can have improvements and results. The key is the effective management, coupled with Agile development in smaller increments of technology and capability. Lots of talk is given here about the need for it, but nothing gets done. It is “safer” to buy multi-million systems with the same contractors over and over. Madness seems to be a way of life.

Ed Albetski

Part of it is the difference between the types of folks that adapt readily to change and the types that don’t. Innovators are often viewed by management as the flaky weirdos who have “ideas”. Stodgy types that can’t even perceive of anything changing are drawn to management. These guys adapt to “group think” and know all the rote answers in business school.

It is the innovator who got the idea to market pet rocks. It was a manager who decided to stockpile a big inventory of them assuming it will be a long popular staple item. I remember a supervisor in my old office who had us purchase several $400 bulbs for a new projector because replacement bulbs wouldn’t be available when the model changed. However the newer model had a higher resolution and our users no longer wanted the old projector anyway. In a rapidly changing environment, standing pat is no longer a safe strategy, but management still gravitates to this view.

@ Jaime, I see your point on effective management, but I have to say I’ve relegated “effective management” into the same category as “congressional ethics”, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny. Well, maybe I do have some hope left for that rabbit.

Julie Chase

In a word (on the federal level when it comes to IT), PARANOIA. While the rest of the world is moving faster than speed of light, some parts of DoD are moving at a snails pace. Don’t ask why? “security” will always be the answer. Everyone is on computer “lockdown” classified, unclassified, “whatever”. Even if your organizations mission has absolutely nothing to do with classified anything. GovLoop is blocked, LinkedIn is blocked, most federal information sites, like GovExec, Fedsmith, Federal Times, Fed empl daily has limited “peeks” in, depending on where you work.

Local government is paranoid, because Uncle Sam is paranoid. So here we all sit in 1990 something….and yes, Jaime is correct it is “safer” buying with same multi million dollar systems with the same contractor over and over. And if you want more space on your personal drive, “ooops, that’s not in the contract, it’s going to cost you.” If you want Adobe Professional on all your machines, “ooops, that’s not in the contract.”