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Public-Sector Innovation and the Culture Factor

Front-line workers know what needs to be done to make government more efficient. Encouraging them to share their ideas is critical.

Today's public-sector workers are all about finding new and efficient ways to collaborate and tackle tasks, but they often feel too busy, too low on the hierarchy or too intimidated by the red tape they must navigate. According to a survey last year, 90 percent of government workers say they're constantly looking for ways to improve their productivity but only 55 percent feel empowered by the support and resources they receive along the way.

Employees on the front lines experience government's inefficiencies firsthand. They know exactly where time and money are being wasted on outdated or unproductive processes. In most cases, however, innovation in government is predominantly driven by those at the top, by people not likely to be in touch with the true needs of those who could accomplish more with new or updated processes, tools and solutions.

Innovation can and should happen at all levels of government, regardless of employees' experience levels, departments or roles. But this is only possible if institutions maintain an inclusive culture that encourages workers to collaborate and share ideas, opinions and goals without fear of criticism or disapproval (and also without facing insurmountable institutional roadblocks).

Governmental institutions that do encourage innovation at all levels of their enterprises see big results. In 2013, Atlanta created an employee ideas competition that urged the city's workers to identify opportunities to reduce waste and save money. Ideas spawned from the competition included a pay-as-you-throw garbage program, an expanded rainwater-capturing system and a "fuel-hedging" system, similar to the approach used by airlines, to save money on fuel for police vehicles.

Another approach is to institutionalize the quest for innovation with specialized employee training, as Denver has done through its Peak Academy program. Just recently, a Peak Academy graduate found and fixed an inefficiency in the police department's video-monitoring system that's saving thousands of dollars in staff time while reducing police response times. All told, city officials say, innovations and efficiencies that came out of Peak Academy saved the city nearly $5.4 million last year.

Philadelphia has not only launched an innovation academy of its own but also has created a co-working space -- an innovation lab -- to foster collaboration among city workers, constituents and vendors and allow them to feel comfortable exchanging ideas without oversight and red tape. "We've been asking ourselves: how can we foster innovation in the city without getting in the way?" says Deputy Mayor Richard Negrin.

Innovation-boosting initiatives like these cannot be enacted overnight. They require a cultural change that takes time to build and nurture. To begin instilling this mindset from the ground up, governments should look to Google. The tech giant has nailed top-to-bottom collaborative innovation by organizing frequent interdepartmental brainstorming sessions and opening the lines of communication between workers and leaders.

Public managers can follow in Google's footsteps by creating informal weekly, monthly, or quarterly meetings where co-workers can brainstorm, share and collaborate, challenge them to think beyond their everyday tasks and responsibilities, and then take the best solutions that emerge from these forums and present them to leadership.

Of course, government workers aren't the only ones with ideas. Some of the best can come from the businesses, vendors and nonprofits that partner with governments. Engaging in conversations with these entities and individuals surely provides key innovative ideas.

Governments should also create opportunities for open, collaborative dialogue with citizens and the private sector in which common challenges are identified and solutions are sought. These cross-sector partnerships are mutually beneficial, allow for a two-pronged approach to problem-solving, boost citizen engagement, and lead to more fruitful collaborations down the road.

Once governments open the communication and creative channels within -- while also inviting citizens, nonprofits and the private sector to contribute -- the right innovative partnerships will emerge and good things will begin to happen.

President and founder of Mo'mix Solutions
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