Finding and Spreading Good Ideas

Two new how-to guides for public innovators could prove very useful for public officials who need to find better, faster, cheaper ways of getting the job done.
by | July 15, 2010 AT 3:00 AM

Necessity is the mother of invention. Two new how-to guides for public innovators could prove very useful for public officials who need to find better, faster, cheaper ways of getting the job done.

These two guides peek under the hood of public government to look at specific strategies to spur innovation. "Public sector culture often rewards people for turning the gears of bureaucracy rather than improving the overall machinery," write co-authors Geoff Mulgan and Jitinder Kohli in Capital Ideas: How to Generate Innovation in the Public Sector (PDF). Working under the auspices of the Center for American Progress and the Young Foundation, the authors take aim at the challenge of public innovation:

We know from other fields -- such as science and medicine -- that innovation doesn't just happen by accident. There are well developed systems to foster innovation in the commercial sector. Yet too often in the public sector, even though there is a great deal of talk of the need to be innovative, there is little specific action. It's still rare for innovation to be at all institutionalized in government budgets, roles, and processes. And it's even rarer to find officials and politicians who are aware of the full range of tools that they could be using to accelerate the development and spread of better ideas.

The 31-page "Ideas" guide walks through a number of strategies, including Iowa's drive to improve government efficiency, Denmark's forward-thinking innovation unit, crowdsourcing and others.

For those ideas that do show promise, a companion guide by the same authors looks at how to replicate, spread and scale up innovative practices. Scaling New Heights: How to Spot Small Successes in the Public Sector and Make Them Big takes its cue from former President Clinton: "Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge of the 21st century is to find out what works and scale it up." It is quite a challenge, however. As the report notes, the public sector in general and the social services sector in particular struggles with bringing good ideas to scale:

Economists estimate that innovation -- brilliant ideas that become large scale products and services -- accounts for as much as 85 percent of the United States' economic growth. There are strong incentives to innovate in the private sector, with enormous financial returns for those who can take innovations from small ideas to large-scale markets. And commercial markets have a whole infrastructure dedicated to creating and scaling innovations -- from business incubators to venture capital funds. Governments offer an important helping hand, too -- both through the tax system and direct funding.

But the United States' social sector has been largely unable to match the success at achieving scale in industry and services.

The report offers a number of strategies for closing this gap. Echoing arguments made in the book The Power of Social Innovation by Stephen Goldsmith, authors Mulgan and Kohli see philanthropy as an important catalyst for change. "Foundations can be more nimble than governments -- and have often in the past used their freedom to champion important new ideas and social models."

The challenge the authors seek to address is a daunting one: To replicate the powerful spur to innovation that exists naturally in a competitive market into a public-sector environment that responds to political, not profit, motivation. Tapping into the sincere desire of those in government who seek better ways of doing things, the guides offer useful, concrete tips for overcoming some of the inherent barriers to finding and spreading innovation. Building on the work of Eggers and Singh in The Public Innovator's Playbook (PDF), Mulgan and Kohli explore several case studies that illustrate how some governments have successfully used a variety of strategies to bring about positive change -- a welcome respite from the drumbeat of bad news brought to us by the media.

Anyone interested in public innovation should take a peek at these two well-written, thoughtful white papers.