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It Takes an Ecosystem for Government Innovation

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

By Bill Brantley
January 19, 2022

It’s a new year and time for another round of predictions for the future of government. For example, Rick Parrish, a Vice-President at Forrester, made these predictions back in November 2021:

  1. “One-third of global civil servants will become permanent hybrid workers.”
  2. “Ten percent of government administrative workload will be automated.”
  3. “We’ll see the first carbon-neutral national government in a developed country.”
  4. “At least five more governments will adopt Zero Trust to revive public trust in digital services.”
  5. “Anemic government IT will account for failure to spend 20% of stimulus funds globally.”

A quick Google search will bring many articles like the Forrester article for 2022, along with articles full of predictions for years past. I’ve also written articles attempting to predict the future of government. My favorite personal article was one I wrote in 2010 describing four scenarios for the future of the U.S. Federal Government. When I expanded the four scenarios article into a book in 2019, I was heavily involved in bringing innovation into the Federal Government. Unfortunately, I had more failures than successes with innovation, which led me to discover how to help innovation thrive in government.

I read many books and articles on innovation and compiled notes on best practices. I shared what I learned with other government innovators, including the newly formed Federal Government Innovation Adoption Community. Advice included having a vision, ensuring that the innovation meets a need and strategically dealing with resistance to change. However, it wasn’t until I read Rod Adner’s 2021 book Winning the Right Game: How to Disrupt, Defend, and Deliver in a Changing World that I was missing a critical insight into government innovation. For an innovation, whether technological, managerial, or cultural, to succeed, the ecosystem of the agency and the government must support the innovation.

The Importance of an Ecosystem

Adner uses the example of how Kodak lost the digital photography market to explain the difference between technology disruption and ecosystem disruption. Even though Kodak was the first to create the digital camera and won the digital printing market, it still lost to image-sharing companies like Instagram. According to Adner, the rise of mobile phones, which included digital cameras coupled with cellular and Wi-Fi networks, encouraged consumers to share photos virtually rather than physically through printed copies.

“An ecosystem is defined by the structure through which partners interact to deliver a value proposition to the end consumer”, according to Adner. Unfortunately, many government innovations fail to take hold, not considering the ecosystem and especially the partners in the ecosystem. I’ve seen several innovations that made much sense and promised great benefits in my government career. However, for the innovations to work, support was needed from the government agency’s culture, technological infrastructure and employees.

What’s a Typing Pool?

Here is one example from early in my government career. I started my first government job as a paralegal in the Kentucky state government on September 2, 1991. Among the office supplies on my desk was a mini-cassette recorder. I was told to use the recorder to dictate my documents, which the typing pool would type. I have been using personal computers since 1984 to type my papers for high school and college. However, I found dictation difficult and brought in a personal word processor. Skipping the typing pool allowed me to be more productive and provide more services to my attorneys.

Seeing the advantages of doing my own word processing, other employees wanted personal computers. However, it took over a year for the agency to acquire personal computers and few attorneys wanted the personal computers because “only secretaries typed.” In addition, as more employees shifted to doing their own documents, the typing pool had less work. The leadership tried to keep the typing pool busy with other tasks rather than eliminating the typists. Another challenge for the agency’s ecosystem was hiring IT support personnel to manage the computer network, maintain the printers and troubleshoot computer problems.

Value Architecture and the Importance of Ecosystem Partners

Adner defines value architecture as the “elements that are brought together to create the value proposition.” Think of the first two predictions from Parrish. Based on the experiences in the last two years, what elements from the agency ecosystem will need to be brought together to support the new hybrid workforce? And what technological, managerial and cultural innovations will be required to automate ten percent (or more) of the agency’s administrative work?

When seeking government innovation, think of including ecosystem partners in making the innovation successful through robust value architecture. Innovations don’t succeed by themselves. It takes a supportive and engaged ecosystem to help innovations take hold and thrive.

Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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