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By Christine Gibbs Springer

Nurturing continuous innovation and renewal in public agencies is not only important but critical in today’s environment of change.    Today, there is a growing recognition that fostering a culture of innovation is critical to organizational success.  It is even as important as mapping out competitive strategies, maintaining good profit margins in revenue areas and meeting statutory requirements.  There are 15 types of teams and individuals that fuel innovation inside organizations: five outsiders and ten insiders. By developing and supporting these innovation personalities that often include citizens, we as public managers are able to support new concepts so that they live long enough to make a difference in improving organizational processes and outcomes.



First, we need to understand that we as public managers don’t have all of the answers.  Traditional inside out approaches assume that subject-matter experts invent and design new approaches to meet citizen needs that they themselves do not realize are present.  The outside in approach flips the innovation process around and assumes that citizens have outcomes that they want to achieve, that they have unique knowledge about their own circumstances and context, and that they are unhappy enough about how things are being done today that they are willing to take action to improve them.  Harnessing the power of the community’s organic creativity requires supporting their creative processes by providing them with tools, resources and staff.

Keys to unleashing community innovation are to first, find and commercialize the innovations of lead users who are already closing the gap between how they do things today and what they ideally would like to be able to do as well as to see the public agency accomplish.  Secondly, we need to engage with our most creative yet grounded citizens and work with them to achieve ideal outcomes.  Thirdly, we need to empower lead users with cooperatively designed tools and innovation toolkits so that they can design their own solutions, innovating within legal boundaries as they go.  In all three approaches, the discrepancy between what citizens can do today and what they ideally want to do is the structural tension that spawns innovation.

There are usually five distinct citizen innovators : the stars, the contributors, the consultants, the coaches and the promoters.

Stars innovate without being asked.  Often they aren’t fulltime members of the community – yet.  But whether they are fully participating or not, they are thoughtful and passionate about the outcomes that they want to achieve.  They will design next-generation services or business models because they have the commitment, talent and energy to do so.  By engaging them in cooperative-design activities, we enable them to extend, modify and/or redesign products and services.

Contributors are happy to donate their time and work for a good cause.  They innovate within guidelines and provide value by doing so.  As an example, they may create software or music and offer their creations freely to others.  They contribute their time as debuggers and testers of new concepts and they enjoy seeing their contributions and ideas put into action.

Consultants provide deep subject-matter expertise and offer valuable guidance in areas that require substantive experience and insights in areas like homeland security, emergency management, healthcare, elderly services, homelessness, business licenses and development planning.  They can analyze policy trade-offs, help prioritize goals and recommend integrated approaches that truly resolve problems and expand opportunities.

Coaches act as advisors to other citizens, solving problems, offering case studies and creating maps that help citizens become oriented to navigating complicated processes and using effectively the relationships between complex concepts.   Coaches also classify, filter, organize and review alternatives so as to make sense out of confusing information and data.  They add value by creating new understandings and approaches. 

Promoters are enthusiastic about public service and are happy to spread the word and come up with innovative ideas about how to attract and delight other citizens.  They contribute to shortening the adoption time for new processes and services by partnering with other agencies and promoting the excellence of what is accomplished.

Organizations that are successful in engaging and harvesting the results of citizens’ innovation have one thing in common:  A large percentage of their employees at every level of the organization are deeply curious about what problems and issues the community needs to solve and what citizens want to see happen in the agency, in the community or at the state, local, federal level of government.  These public managers aren’t just focused on developing, producing and delivering great service.  They are committed to getting into a citizen’s shoes so as to view the world from their perspective and understand what citizens ideally want to accomplish.  Citizen-led innovation happens almost organically in organizations with this kind of culture.  If everyone is focused on what citizens are trying to accomplish rather than their own internal governmental process, it becomes natural to empower and engage citizens so as to invent new ways of achieving mutually agreed to outcomes.

Within the organization, we see learning, organizing and building innovatorsLearning innovators are often described as anthropologists, experimenters or cross-pollinators.

The anthropologist brings new learning and insights into the organization by observing human behavior and developing a deep understanding of how people interact with the organization’s services, space, products or people.  Experimenter prototypes bring forth new ideas continuously, learning through trial and error.

The Cross-Pollinator explores other agency and governmental approaches and then translates those findings and revelations into a unique fit so as to benefit agency endeavors.  Organizing personas know that the path to innovation is strewn with obstacles. They find ways to succeed by outsmarting them, overcoming them with eclectic coalitions and multidisciplinary solutions or sparking the creative talents of a talented team to do so.  As an example, the Hurdler does more with less.  They get a charge out of trying to do something that has never been done before such as turning a small budget or time constraint into an opportunity.

Building Innovators include Collaborators and Directors. Collaborators champion and support talented and coordinated teams much like Thomas Edison was known to do.  Sometimes they do so through collaboration just as 10 years ago, Samsung, then considered a second-tier consumer electronics company came to IDEO with a bold plan to have a group of designers from Korea work and essentially live with IDEO’s designers for three years.  In the end, the collaboration resulted in 27 new products – from computers to televisions.  Directors map out initiatives and craft new organizational images. They bring out the best among principals, redesign the project or the programmatic theme by giving center stage to others, enjoy finding new projects, overcome tough challenges, own a large toolbox and like shooting for the moon.

In the final analysis, organizational innovation is critical to successful public management today because change is unavoidable and will affect outcomes regardless of whether or not the organization is directly involved.  Without acknowledging the importance of both inside out and outside in approaches, processes and outcomes will never improve.  They will only be buffeted by unmanaged forces.

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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.

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