New Paradigms for Social Innovation

Event on Creating and Implementing Ideas in the Public Sector

Doing What Works project event explores the institutional challenges to innovation in government and how they can be overcome.

Event panelists discuss how to generate innovative ideas in the public sector. (CAP)
Event panelists discuss how to generate innovative ideas in the public sector. (CAP)

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“Today’s challenges are too big, too complicated, and too interdependent for old paradigms of social innovation to provide the kind of impactful solutions we need,” said Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, at a Center for American Progress panel discussion sponsored by the Doing What Works project on strategies for fostering innovation in government. Pressing issues such as affordable health care and climate change demand original and creative solutions, the panelists said, which means governments around the world need new systems and processes for encouraging innovation.

The fiscal magnitude of these challenges means that governance must improve not only in degree, but in kind. “We need productivity gains not of one, two, or three percent, but of 10, 20, to 30 percent,” said Geoff Mulgan, director of the U.K.-based Young Foundation, who joined Rodin on the panel.

Mulgan, along with the panel’s moderator CAP Senior Fellow Jitinder Kohli, are the authors of two reports released yesterday on public sector innovation. The first report, “Capital Ideas: How to Generate Innovation in the Public Sector,” explains how to create the conditions needed to foster powerful innovation in government agencies and provides a menu of 24 examples from the public sector. The second report, “Scaling New Heights: How to Spot Small Successes in the Public Sector and Make Them Big,” discusses how successful innovations can be implemented on a much wider scale.

CAP President and CEO John Podesta said in introducing the panel that the challenges discussed in the second report may be more important and more difficult to address. But panelists noted obstacles at all stages of the innovation lifecycle from insight to implementation.

Some obstacles are cultural. “What stops public officials from innovating more than anything else is the fear of failure,” said panelist William Eggers, director of the Deloitte Public Leadership Institute. Mulgan agreed, saying government officials’ concerns about legislative and media scrutiny often prevent agency heads from supporting innovations.

“The structure of incentives and rewards is biased against innovation” in government agencies, Mulgan said. Individuals in the private sector must often demonstrate their capacity to innovate in order to receive promotions, but professional advancement in a civil service career is often dependent on maintaining established practices.

The panel also noted that innovation is especially challenging in times of economic crisis. “How can an agency head focus on innovation when confronted daily with economic triage?” said Rodin. “How can a mayor who is having to cut vital services invest in innovative practices?”

Beyond the barriers to innovation, there are obstacles in the public sector to implementing a new idea on a broader scale after it has been developed. “We often say, ‘If we implement this complicated and intricate method with perfect fidelity, there will be huge impacts,’” said U.S. Department of Education Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton, another panelist. The key is often to simplify innovations, so others can emulate it, he said.

Panelists were optimistic, however, that structural and institutional changes could make successful and widespread innovation standard practice in the public sector.

“Innovation doesn’t happen at the core of any organization. It happens on the edges,” said Eggers. “The most innovative organizations can bring the outside in.” The explosion of information technology and networks has the potential to make this much simpler by making organizations or government agencies more open, he added.

A recurring theme in the panelists’ discussion of successful innovation was the use of networks to speed the development of new ideas. Shelton described the Education Department’s Investment in Innovation Fund, a competition supported by money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to find the best approaches in education. The exchange of ideas among the network of applicants will benefit everyone, even those who aren’t competition winners, he said.

Mulgan and Kohli, who worked together in former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government in the United Kingdom, stress in their report the need for agencies dedicated to innovation, which could serve as clearinghouses for information on best practices and help facilitate the widespread adoption of new ideas. Leaders in government could rely on these agencies for inventive solutions to key problems.

Strong support for innovation in government is a key component of a progressive agenda, according to Mulgan. “Around the world, conservatives and reactionaries as a matter of principle say that nothing works, that nothing works that hasn’t been tried before,” he said. But designing a government that creates effective new approaches to society’s problems can demonstrate the incompleteness of that point of view.

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