Does Government Kill Off Creativity?

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This topic contains 28 replies, has 20 voices, and was last updated by  Noha Gaber 9 years, 1 month ago.

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  • #166744

    Ori Hoffer

    A recent story in Government Executive, “Are you creative? You might be better off in the private sector” brings up a question that I often find myself asking.

    If all the creative people leave for the private sector, where will change come from in the public sector?

    If there are so many problems in government, shouldn’t the creative types be encouraged and nurtured in order to find new solutions?

    What do you think? Is creativity encouraged or stifled at your agency?

  • #166800

    Noha Gaber

    I think the headline is a tad sensational…I agree though with Max Steir’s conclusion, while a large number of federal employees are individually motivated to be creative, they are not institutonally supported to start, scale and sustain innovative ideas. The underlying causes vary, but the good news is that there is a growing recognition among some federal employees that this is a major challenge that we can collectively try to tackle. Some of us would like to embrace the challenge and help change things for the better rather than jump ship…at least not quite yet 🙂

  • #166798

    Kanika Tolver

    Being an innovator takes courage. One has to be open to change, many people within the Federal Government is not open to change and creative thinking. I am government innovator, I enjoy thinking outside the box. It is very frustrating that many Gen Ys don’t get the opportunity to utilize their creative skills. Trait 1 and 9 of: Ten Traits of a Great Government Leader is to be a Change Champion and an Innovative Entrepreneur. It’s sad that many of our Government leaders are not great and do not embrace creativity.

  • #166796

    Deb Green

    Change takes energy, takes leadership support, and takes an awful lot of focus.

    And it takes time. A lot of time to make meaningful, systematic change.

    One of the great comments in the GovExec article offered by user Donny66 really sums it up, IMHO:

    “More accurately put, creativity and innovation in an accountable, tightly budgeted government environment requires patience.

    True the private sector can take risks – but if a risky venture fails, they have these options:

    (1) Private firms often charge risk-related losses to their customers.
    (2) Private firms do NOT have the disclosure and reporting burden of Federal Agencies.
    (3) Private firms can fail and come back to life under a new name – remember that 9 out of 10 new private business ventures fails in the first year.

    The Federal goverment does NOT have those options – and their missions are critical to the nation – that is why they are handled by government – with full disclosure to taxpayers (3 letter agencies being the exception)”

    Most of all, I agree with #3. Private entities plan a portion of their operation to developing riskier/non-core categories of product, of customers, of services. Failure is expected and tolerated in private sector. What’s the likelihood of Congress or the American public tolerating an agency spending 20% of it’s total budget on programs with an expected failure rate of 80%? Year after year, I’d suspect the answer to be “Highly Unlikely.”

  • #166794

    Terrence Hill

    I agree with Kanika. It takes an almost insurmountable amount of courage to sustain creativity in Federal agencies, mainly because most are so risk-averse and require multiple layers of risk-averse management to obtain approval for initaitives. Also, there is a bias against harnessing the creativity of Federal employees. The unwritten assumption is that consultants can be more objective and are more creative because they are not captives of the system.

    Compliance is valued more than creativity and change if often feared by the status quo management. We have a vast, untapped resource in our Federal employees (just look at the SAVE award ideas), that is mainly ignored by management.

  • #166792

    Bill Brantley

    One result from a survey does not prove that government is not creative.

  • #166790

    Kanika Tolver

    Thanks Terry!

  • #166788

    Writing for the FCN blog I noted the finding that federal employees were actually much more likely to seek innovation than private sector workers – 92% vs. 60% say they are “looking for ways to do their jobs better”.

    Hypothesis – paradoxically, government agencies, because they restrict innovation, actually motivate employees to want to innovate more.

    Blog is here:

  • #166786

    Chris Cairns

    Having worked on both sides of the aisle, I’ve found that creativity can be stifled in any organization. The determining factor really is your direct management and whether they are supportive of creative solutions to problems.

  • #166784

    Ori Hoffer

    I’m not just talking about risk and innovation when it comes to creativity – I’m also wondering about the “creative arts” – writing, graphic design, photography, video, etc.. These aren’t things that necessarily cost more money, but they can make communications clearer and more impactful than using the same old templates year after year.

    Is the public being served by having the really “creative” types go work for internet startups, architecture firms, video production houses, etc.?

  • #166782

    Bill Brantley

    Thanks for clarifying. No, the public is not being served if the people who can communicate information effectively and engagingly are not entering public service. Government is the biggest producer of information and the biggest provider of services which makes communication the number one critical skill. I don’t know if government is doing enough to support the communicators in government but, if we are not, then we need to rapidly change that. I believe that part of the problem with the public’s perception of government is that we don’t communicate well.

  • #166780

    Jeff S

    Creativity in government tends to be downplayed unless you can make your boss or other upper management employees look good.

  • #166778

    Mark Hammer

    I think one needs to distinguish creativity from patience.

    The sense that “creativity is stifled” can often come from the desire to act quickly on an idea one has had. The “creative” employee is a squirrel, riding atop a tortoise’s back. The tortoise will get where it needs to go, and maybe even listen to directions from the squirrel. Meanwhile, the squirrel has had a zillion other brainstorms while waiting for the tortoise to respond fully to the first one.

    I get responses from management to my creative suggestions…but I need to wait 18 months or more to see anything like a movement in that direction. In the private sector, there is constant competition, and precious little public accountability other than to shareholders (who have their own impatience), so responsiveness and timeliness is the order of the day. Government, on the other hand, has a great many different stakeholders and accountability regmens to comply with, making them cautiously responsive. In government, the watchword “Hurry up and wait”.

    I’m not trying to depict the OP as unreasonably impatient. Rather, one needs to differentiate between the fact that public sector managers will recognize and incorporate fresh thinking, and the speed with which they do so. That being said, there are speeds which can reasonably be interpreted as resistance to, or begrudging acceptance of, creative ideas, and speeds which can be reasonably interpreted as slower-than-desired-but-moving-in-the-right-direction. Telling those apart can be hard, and probably harder for those with less public sector tenure.

  • #166776


    From my perspective, the challenge isn’t that people – at every level – don’t have creative ideas and don’t know what to do… It’s that the how is so overwhelming. Who do I need to convince? Who has to sign off? What policy might I be violating? The collected policies are like precedent in law: they build on each other. As a result, we have a federal workforce culture that doesn’t support just making it up and going with it.

    Indeed, even commercial entities don’t support willy-nilly reinvention of processes. If the commercial sector keeps chaos at bay by having standard procedures for hiring, how much more processes must be in place to manage hiring for an entity with millions of employees?

    That isn’t to say that there isn’t a need for creativity and innovation. It is to say that there is a reason why things are the way they are. Any challenge to the status quo must respect the path to the as-is state if that challenge is going to be successful. Personally, I’d love to see a zero-base review of many things. Hiring practices, for example. Take the intentions that are behind the policies – diversity is a good thing, those who have risked their lives for the nation deserve extra consideration – and then clean house. If you did that, you’d at least have a start.

    My grandfather used to say that the Camel is the perfect example of an animal created by committee. It’s not graceful, it’s funny looking and lumpy, it’s got a bad attitude, but it does what it needs to do. Mostly.

    The entire government, from its systems to its policies to its hires to its culture is created by committee. That creates a culture of doing the safe thing, bringing the outliers to the middle, and huge element of inefficiency. But consider the risks of a government that is not committee-driven: Singapore’s the nicest of the lot, where you risk caning for chewing gum in public. On the horrific side, you’ve got Stalin. We might not have a government that moves quickly, reinvents itself at the pace of expectations, or achieves its aims efficiently and/or effectively, but we do have a government that shares power across tens of agencies, hundreds of organizations, thousands of leaders, and millions of implementers. That dispersion of power (and therefore efficiency) does serve a purpose: moderation.

    At least that’s what I see.

  • #166774

    Amanda Moskowitz

    There are different definitions of what it means to be innovative. An IRS auditor cannot be creative in the same way I am as a graphic designer. Our roles and how we think are completely opposite. However, that doesn’t mean though that he/she doesn’t have the opportunity to think outside the box when it comes to solving problems.

    For me though, the part of the article that sticks out is “Rather, it’s a problem of workers not getting the institutional support that they need.” My federal experience is limited to that of a contractor, but I couldn’t agree more. In a climate that is, by nature, ever-changing and latent with political intricacies, volatile budgets, and shifting priorities federal employees are more often than not trying to keep their heads above water. It’s a hard to stay ahead of the curve when you constantly find yourself at the starting line.

    In addition, I feel that federal employees not only lack institutional support but also the motivation to be creative, innovative, and forward thinking. It’s not that they don’t want to be creative; it’s just that they know that nine times out of ten their ideas won’t go anywhere due to the factors previously mentioned. Therefore, there is no incentive to even try.

    Federal employees are smart; they know their issues—they know what needs to be done. As someone who partners with government agencies, it’s my job to not only help them figure out how to do it but, more importantly, leave them with the right resources and tools so they feel confident being creative and enacting change on their own.

  • #166772

    Marc Overbeck

    Great comment!

  • #166770

    Alex Moll

    Often, I am described as such, always as compliment. This is the core reason I left the private sector to join the civil society sector and later, the Federal government. A few others in government have described me as creative, yet in the same breath with a tone of pity, rather than celebratory excitement. Whereas in the private sector, it was universally appreciated, at least in my experience. Agencies and their departments probably differ in their cultural attitudes to the subject.

    Perhaps it is because creativity is encouraged until, for whatever reason, it may tickle someone’s insecurities or prompt a perception of risk. Also, sometimes I have observed others perceive creativity only in terms of graphic communication. Obviously, it can be applied to any endeavor; essentially, it is a manner of thinking. Government ought to score individuals and teams based on the the application of this trait, especially because it directly relates to innovation.

  • #166768

    Joe Williams

    I believe we all are creative, and can be in Government roles – with caveats. It’s dependent on whether the environment aligns with our natural talents for creativity. For instance, I’ll generalize Government service as one of being rooted in data, of adherence to established systems and procedures, of preserving the status quo, and of dealing with abstract concepts. Now, on the surface, one might say that such a description is the antithesis of what we typically call “creativity,” yet I argue that that is not the case.

    For instance, since many Government jobs are rooted in data and details, an example of creativity would be data mining for information that when combined in new ways provides new insights. Another would be to combine existing systems in new ways that improves performance, reduces cost, or both. I could go on.

    Now, if your definition of creativity is creating a start-up, then yes – you’ll be beating your head against the proverbial brick wall. I once heard Government described by a scholar at GWU as being a “friction maximizing device,” meaning that it is slow to change…by design. Therefore, entrepreneurial approaches in Government – those that shortcut systems or upset the status quo – will encounter a lot of resistance. Yet it is my point that there are other definitions of creativity, and those will thrive in Government.

  • #166766

    Allison Primack

    We asked this question on GovLoop’s Facebook, and got many replies:

    Gerry Cooney In a word, yes.

    Tural Abbasov Yes.

    Edward Peters Sadly, that’s a yes … too many insecure bureaucrats

    Penny van Zandt Yes!

    Kathleen Galvan Yes – there are so many rules and regulations and bureaucrats, that those of us who actually think outside the box are not the norm. I know of only three people in my office who can see panorama. The others have blinders on.

    Chrissey Breault Everyone always claims they want to do “new” things and then when someone tries, it’s back to the same old boring stuff…..which never worked to begin with!

    Neelie M Neirbo Heck no. Bureaucracy does. Managers can really effect the climate in which people work to reward creativity and innovation.

    Kathleen Galvan The government (at least where I have worked) does NOT reward creativity and innovation. In fact people who are actually creative and innovative tend to be pestered or bureaucrated to death.

    Kathleen Galvan And yet the government needs creative and innovative people more than they ever have.

    Greg Powroznik There are two competing cultures. One is standardization and regulation for the sake of efficiency and security. The other is innovation, ironically with the same goal of efficiency.

  • #166764

    Allison Primack

    We also got this reply on GovLoop’s LinkedIn:

    Debra FryarI think there are plenty of creative people in government. You have to be creative to learn to work around the Bureaucracy.

  • #166762

    Joshua Aaron DeLung

    I’m seeing this problem more and more. It’s not so much in my experience that the leadership in government kills creativity, but a lot of times it is technological restrictions and out-of-date methods that frustrate and turn off workers, both feds and contractors doing work for agencies.

    An example of this problem is with Web developers. The government does not have the internal resources needed to hire on Drupal and other coders in order to run its websites, so most often the .gov sites are ran completely by contractors overseen by a small public affairs shop with a Web manager and maybe one or two supporting staff or (in the worst case scenario) by OCIO (which means the strategic communication expertise is usually lacking to create quality website content, etc.).

    When the government engages contractors, however, they are usually locked in to a fixed price with standard rates — which means the contractors can’t give employees raises and other benefits to keep them on the team. The turnover rate on technology-related projects like this is huge right now because (A) competition with firms doing private sector work is too costly and (B) developers want to do innovative, creative things but have to default back to outdated designs and functionalities because they are forced to ensure IE6 compatibility still for government in many cases.

    It’s really a catch 22. Do we want government to spend more money to keep the best talent, therefore skyrocketing the taxpayer dollars used? Obviously the ROI would be better, but it seems the American people are willing to accept mediocre service in exchange for reducing government’s budget.

  • #166760


    You couldn’t prove that by my experience.

  • #166758


    The government kills creativity.

  • #166756

    Bill Brantley

    I disagree. Just one of many examples of government creativity:

  • #166754

    Marc Overbeck

    My own agency is not particularly known as an environment which helps nurture creativity.

    Within our large mega-agency, we do come up with creative ideas and solutions to some major public policy problems, and are implementing them and producing results. Our state is leading the way (with others) in reducing the costs of health care, supporting a more outcome-focused (rather than procedure-focused) approach to have people be healthy and addressing real issues around quality of care with success. I am proud to work within an organization that is getting things done. With our support, the Community Health Centers in our state finally saw fewer uninsured clients than medicaid clients last year, as we continue to reduce the number of uninsured people–in advance of the full implmenetaion of federal health care reform.

    I do realize and hear from others that there is frustration when “our own” ideas do not seem to be acknowledged or encouraged, but rather, the emphasis placed on supporting OTHERS’s creative ideas–those coming from leadership.

    On one hand, this is the nature of many organizations–carry out the vision of the leader(s). On the other hand, where else can we take responsibility for cultivating a “culture of creativity” so that the solutions to our current challenges can be a match for the problem? So that good work is acknowledged, AND we keep pushing for more supports for organization-wide encouragement of everyone’s creativity?

  • #166752


    Oh, no doubt the government does some great things. But I’m a writer who has been with the Feds for 20 years. All around me I see creativity killers.

  • #166750

    David B. Grinberg

    Hi Ori, did you read this post? Any feedback based on the comments you received?

  • #166748

    Gerard R. Wenham

    “Creativity delayed is creativity denied.”

    The tide of change is frequently irresistible, even for government. I remember that when the first microcomputers were brought into government offices by employees, they were derided as “toys”. Years later, the agency bought two as an “experiment”. Today, the same pattern is being followed in regards to mobile “smart” phones and tablets. Ten years from now they will be accepted as normal, but today they are resisted mightily (an effort, I am convinced, that will prove futile in the loooong run).

  • #166746

    Ori Hoffer

    David – I did see that post. All I can think of is the public reaction to government building an office like a Silicon Valley startup – with brightly colored couches, lots of open space and a move to give employees time to work outside their usual areas. It may not have a ping-pong table or video games, but people seem to expect government employees to be working a certain way – which is too bad.

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