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How to Foster Innovation in Government Management Systems

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Prajapati Trivedi
October 11, 2017

Arguably, innovation is a key determinant of the competitive advantage of nations. Little wonder therefore that governments around the world want to be seen promoting innovation. However, based on my experience, government efforts in this area can be divided into two broad categories: Most of the governmental resources (money and time) are used for promoting innovation by non-government actors, and only a small amount is allocated for the innovation programs meant to encourage management innovation within the government itself. The former category represents innovation encouraged ‘by’ the government and the latter innovation generated ‘in’ the government.

Innovation ‘by’ the Government

These efforts primarily involve government giving financial and non-financial incentives to promote cutting edge breakthroughs in science and technology. Whether it is the Cancer Moon Shot funding for the National Cancer Institute (NCI) or the moon shot technologies NASA regularly funds to make science fiction a reality. Every country has some variation of these programs. The outcome of these innovation initiatives by the government predictably depends essentially on the effectiveness of government machinery – how well governments identify, design, fund and monitor these programs.

machine mindsUnfortunately, many of these efforts by government at promoting innovation also fail because there is no management innovation culture ‘in’ the government. Thus, the often heard plea by stakeholders of these innovation programs: Doctor, heal thyself. Therefore, the latter category of innovation programs is the focus of this article – what can governments do to improve innovation ‘in’ the way government is managed?

Innovation ‘in’ the Government

There are again two broad categories of management innovation efforts ‘in’ governments around the World – innovation by chance and innovation by design. Overwhelming number of innovation initiatives within governments recognize, reward and promote innovation that happens by chance. The most common of these initiatives is typically called an Award for Innovation and usually involve submitting entries, a panel of judges, shortlisting and final list of winners. Having worked on both sides of the process, I can say with some confidence that ‘subjectivity’ is the least of their flaws. The essence of such awards is ‘ex-post’ recognition of the fortuitous happenstance. The innovation ‘by design’ in government, on the other hand, is often only focused on technological solutions rather than developing holistic innovation eco-systems.

How to Promote Innovation by Design: Lessons of Experience

So how does one create an innovation eco-system within a government that promotes a culture of management innovation? Here are some pointers based on my experience in doing so.

First, we must recognize why innovation is pervasive in private sector compared to government. Mainly it is because there is a clear connection between innovation and private sector’s bottom line — profits. In government, on the other hand, usually there is no bottom line and hence the same motivation is simply non-existent. Therefore, creating a bottom line in government is a necessary condition for generating motivation to innovate. It does not mean governments must become profit-oriented. Rather, it must at least become goal-oriented. Management innovations represent ‘means’ and are not an ‘end’ in and of itself. If the ‘ends’ are not clear, focus on ‘means’ is a waste of time.

Second, it is important to agree on the definition of innovation in government management. What gets measured, gets done. Otherwise, there is a tendency in government to claim every new change, howsoever insignificant, as innovation. In my work with the Government of India, we defined innovation in government management as a significant and sustainable improvement in:

(a) Delivery of same goods and services at less cost and time;
(b) Delivery of more goods & services and /or with better quality; and,
(c) Identification of new needs (hence provision of new goods and services).

These three areas cover management process innovations, organizational innovations, product and services innovation, and communications innovations in government. To qualify as innovation, however, we required above mentioned improvements to be above 20 percent or more. Further, the change could not be a one-time improvement but had to be a permanent change.

Third, we must always remember that Rome was not built in a day. An innovation ecosystem is a long-term project. It includes idea management process, buzz-creation process, training and development, building stakeholder participation, among others. We divided the task of creating this innovation eco-system into several distinct milestones. To start with, we asked government agencies to prepare an action plan on how they will create the innovation ecosystem. Then, we started monitoring the implementation of those milestones on an annual basis.

Fourth, this not a task that can be achieved by passing an executive order. A lot of guidance, hand-holding and training is required. Most governments simply ask agencies to be innovative. That is not enough. An example of detailed guidelines prepared by us can be seen here.

Fifth, creating an innovation ecosystem should not be yet another task separate from overall performance management. It should be organically embedded in the existing government performance management system. If creation of innovation ecosystem is a stand-alone task for government agencies, it will either get ignored or, if it has powerful backers, it will suck all the oxygen from other important current priorities of the government.


Author: Prajapati Trivedi, served as chief performance officer for Government of India from 2009-2014. Prior to that he served for 14 years as a Senior Economist for the World Bank. Currently he is a Senior Fellow (Governance) and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy, Indian School of Business (ISB), Visiting Faculty, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and  Visiting Fellow, IBM Center for the Business of Government, Washington, DC. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

2 Responses to How to Foster Innovation in Government Management Systems

  1. Nikhil Agarwal Reply

    October 14, 2017 at 1:00 am

    Bang on observations. As per my short experience in the government system, government (read politicians and bureaucrats) are always focused on ‘quick wins’ and ‘low hanging fruits’ that translates to using existing technology in any of the projects. This reuse of technology is misunderstood as innovation.

    Innovation is a painstakingly slow that yield results in a long term. Indian Govt has demonstrated patience in some areas where India has emerged as the world-leader. Eg: Space research – India is able to send a probe to Mars for almost 10% of the similar NASA probe.

    Developing countries such as India need more focused approach towards innovation if we wish to achieve 12% GDP growth post 2030. Without investment in tech innovation, I would be surprised if we can ever cross 10% GDP growth ever. Investment in indigenous technology is the way forward that would bring employment and revenue to the country. Its time Govt shall show confidence and take some risk to solve critical world problems.

  2. Ruchi Agarwal Reply

    October 14, 2017 at 12:54 am

    Well Said.

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