Turning Governments into Innovation Machines

The key is "intrapreneurship" — establishing a public-sector culture that rewards disruption from within.

Uber, an app that allows smartphone users to find vehicles for hire, has been insanely popular, disputing the traditional taxi model. Meanwhile, the rental-car industry is being disrupted by several innovations, such as Zipcar, the car-sharing service; AutoSlash.com, which monitors car-rental prices; and FlightCar.com, which allows individuals who are travelling to rent their cars out while they are away.

Government needs disruptive innovation just as much as the taxi industry does, but the dynamic that is reshaping the taxi business -- entrepreneurs looking to make money by creating new service models -- isn't a natural fit for government. Can governments innovate and do so mindfully? They can, and what many are finding is that the key to success is creating a culture of intrapreneurship -- the act of behaving like an entrepreneur within a large organization in a process of assertive risk-taking.

We're beginning to see public intrapreneurship, such as in the local-government innovation labs that are springing up all over the place. Boston's Office of New Urban Mechanics, for example, pilots experiments that have the potential to improve the quality of city services, such as the Citizens Connect apps that provide residents with tools to upload photos or use texting to report local problems. Internationally, platforms such as MindLab engage citizens and business on community issues.

I recently spoke at a conference in Santiago, Chile, with an intriguing theme: "Public Innovation: Much Ado About Nothing?" That note of skepticism is understandable. But innovation in the public sector is attainable. What's needed is to keep in mind a few key precepts:

• Design a process to foster intrapreneurship: Without a clearly defined process embedded within the work practices of employees, the chances of engaging the entire organization in innovation are minimal. A process needs to be in place to move ideas from conception to experimentation and, finally, to implementation. Organizations of all types and sizes have been doing this to varying degrees. The city of Chicago, for example, set up a $20 million loan fund for city departments to compete against each other to come up with innovative ideas.

• Hold program-design "charrettes" to engage employees to innovate under constraints. A charrette -- a term borrowed from architecture -- is, in essence, an intense brainstorming session. Design charrettes, which can include an element of playfulness, are useful exercises not only for visioning but also for thinking through policy, legal and economic challenges. In 2012, the Philadelphia Water Department, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several community organizations partnered for an urban-design charrette focused on developing a conceptual master plan.

• Create challenges and competitions that seek to achieve bold goals. The New York City Department of Education created a "Gap App Challenge" to develop apps and games that enhance math teaching, learning and engagement in middle schools. Winners shared $50,000 in cash and $54,000 in Amazon Web Service credits.

• Bring in citizens and community organizations and co-create value. CityCamp is a platform that allows local governments, community organizations and citizens to collaborate and innovate; Oakland, Calif., for example, has a CityCamp to address quality-of-life issues around the problem of illegal dumping. In Britain, Demsoc works with the National Health Service to engage with citizens on decisions about the future of that nation's health-care system.

Unlike taxi operators or car rental agencies, governments have an opportunity to disrupt themselves to dramatically improve the way they do business and serve the public. This requires strong, proactive efforts to empower public employees and engage citizens to create and share innovations. That's what intrapreneurship is all about.

A professor at Queensland University of Technology's QUT Business School
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