Trending in Government: Innovation or Bust?

Has the IT implementation of Obamacare been bad for government innovators? Though most government programs and projects don’t have nearly the same stature, many senior government officials work in fear of being maligned in the Washington Post or other media and make cautious decisions. As stewards of taxpayer resources, senior managers need to be astute in terms of how they use their appropriated funds and staff time. And, let’s face it, many government entities have suffered consecutive years of budget cuts and can’t move beyond the “do more with less” stage to undertake visionary projects.

However, after decades of cautious decisions the government – a term used in a very loose sense – is not appropriately positioned to serve their constituents in the most productive ways. Companies, citizens and even other countries’ governments have thrust themselves into the 21st century. Has the U.S. government followed suit?

In a poignant essay, software entrepreneur Jim Manzi writes about the New American System, whereby the government plays a critical role in fostering innovation. If the government has been a critical partner in the United States’ impressive leadership position for worldwide innovation, why aren’t government agencies themselves doing more to keep up with the times?

One answer: government employees must be allowed to fail. This entails a delicate tightrope in light of Congressional oversight, the dreaded media mention and taxpayer interest. No one wants a failed project or a dud technology on their watch. I certainly don’t. But if employees aren’t encouraged to take risks, they won’t reap the rewards. This means that managers need to have their employees’ backs if the innovative project does not yield fruit. And to even find out what might happen at the end of the yellow brick road, managers must push for the requisite resources to make things happen. Additionally, bosses must also be truly interested, or employees will stop trying to submit good ideas. Many people, particularly in a large organization, feel strong satisfaction in having their idea heard and/or considered.

Again, it’s a delicate balance. Government officials don’t have the luxury of having the resources or success/failure ration of a venture capital firm. (Imagine going to your boss and saying, “1 in 3 of my projects was a success – it’s been a great year!”). But without the freedom to tinker, tweak and fail, most government innovation programs will result in “better than nothing” rather than mind-blowingly cool ideas and programs.

Indeed, innovation programs abound throughout the government. That’s clear from taking a quick glimpse at Many government employees have brilliant ideas. They just need management support and resources to experiment and implement them.

In the end, innovative government employees are like spies. If they succeed, very few will know and, at best, they might get some recognition among their peers. If they don’t, well, they might tremble while reading the Washington Post and hope to escape the Congressional/OIG oversight wrath. But without intrepid employees — at ALL levels of the organization — willing to take risks to make a true difference, “something hopefully better than the last thing” will remain the mantra of government innovation.

Aileen Nandi is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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