Startup Culture Has a Place in Government

Although both sides may be loath to admit it, large government agencies and big corporations share many of the same organizational characteristics. Both generally have sizeable human capital requirements. Both are governed by bureaucratic rules and procedures. And both have been delivering their services, in one form or another, for a long time.

Of course, not all companies and agencies share these characteristics, but these are the features that most often come to mind. I make this comparison because Kurt Sherer, Innovation Strategy Team Lead at Booz Allen Hamilton, recently challenged big business to embrace many of the strategies and principles that guide startup companies. While implied in Sherer’s article, I’d like to openly contend that his arguments are directly applicable to government departments and agencies as well.

Sherer highlights some of the benefits of being a large, established (private) organization. I’d like to append some language to these characteristics so that they describe public organizations:

  • Bigger pot of resources: Although plagued by hiring freezes and budget shortfalls, public organizations often have an incredible amount of resources at hand, primarily because they have big responsibilities.
  • A deep bench of talent: As I’ve mentioned in other posts, public employees often carry the title ‘permanent’ to shield them from political influence and to develop subject matter expertise. This includes policy expertise but also business process expertise as well – if you’ve been running payroll for 25 years, you know the inner-workings of your organization better than anyone.
  • Meaningful relationships to decision makers and game changers: Here in Washington, DC, one of the biggest weapons in an employee’s ‘efficacy arsenal’ is her professional network, both inside and outside of the organization. This network facilitates problem solving as well as the exchange of information and ideas.

To once again quote (and slightly alter) Sherer:

By meshing a startup’s agility and focus with [public sector] resources and relationships, new possibilities emerge that don’t otherwise exist.

In other words, with their rich talent pools and substantial footprints, public agencies have much to gain from using their resources to innovate and formulate new ways of doing business – just like our startups. Instead of viewing these characteristics as impediments to innovation, Sherer urges us to look at them as advantages. Booz Allen Hamilton has a number of strategies for incentivizing innovation – I encourage you to take a look at them.

But what else can we do? Do you know of any interesting organizational techniques used by startups that can (or should) be applied to public sector work?

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