Government Innovation isn’t Your Main Problem

Government innovation isn’t your main problem. It’s government’s.

After many years of unsuccessfully peddling the processes of social innovation to governments across Canada I’ve learned:

  1. Not to peddle process. Instead to focus on proposing bold, workable solutions to problems they are dealing with. Preferably backed by widespread public support. That challenge by itself is more than enough to keep citizens working double time.
  2. It’s a mistake to assume government doesn’t see the need for innovation. Just ask politicians with a new mandate or senior managers how tough it is to shift bureaucracies in the direction of their priorities. Chances are they are doing something about it.
  3. That an awful lot of innovation goes on inside government. It’s just not labelled “innovation.” Although it may be innovative, those public service practitioners often steer clear of that terminology. They want to get things done without drawing undue attention to what their superiors might think is too risky.
  4. If government does ask for help with innovation methods make sure it is applied to a specific challenge. Otherwise it has no hope of changing the way “government does business.”

The most consistent advice I have received from good people in government whether elected or employed is, “by all means tell us what to do but don’t tell us how to do it. Once we have been given the green light, we’ll figure it out and make it happen.” I’ve also observed that even without a green light many dedicated public servants will work quietly laying the groundwork for action once enough public support has been generated to encourage political boldness.

An undue focus on making government more innovative might inhibit you from working with the innovation that is going on and the innovators who are doing it.

NOTE: If governments are looking for innovative approaches to implementation they need look no further than the folks at City Studio. Among their specialties is bringing out the ingenuity of municipal public servants.


..for social innovators…flow occurs not so much internally as externally – in the relationship between their own activity and that of others…The division between audience and actors seem to dissolve and all are brought into a world made anew…When social innovations take flight… the innovators are influencing their context while their context is influencing them in an endless to and fro. ~ Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Patton

Musical selection this post is Burn That Bridge (scroll down) by Donovan Woods. Do support his music.


Eyes Wide Shut, Carmen Papalia’s Guide to Democracy

Don’t Forget the Other Innovators

Ken Dryden’s Tips for Changing the Rules of Your Game

Artisans for the Common Good

The Role of Containers, Hacks and Metaphors in Social Change

A Bystanders’s Guide to Civility in a Time of Rage

First Leap, Bold; Second Leap, Wild

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