Friday, July 2, 2010
New ideas are the lifeblood of every organization. But getting action on those ideas isn’t always easy. The Center for American Progress has released a pair of reports that address these issues, and offer both case studies and concrete suggestions on how
Center for American Progress researchers Jitinder Kohli and Geoff Mulgan wrote “Capital Ideas: How to Generate Innovation in the Public Sector,” and “Scaling New Heights: How to Spot Small Successes in the Public Sector and Make them Big.”  They observe that growing social innovation in the public sector is more difficult than it is to create technical innovation in the private sector. They point to challenges such as the lack of market rewards and funding, but find there are some best practices for the public sector.
They say there is a six-stage cycle of social innovation:
  • Understand the root causes of a specific problem to be addressed.
  • Generate ideas for solutions.
  • Prototype and test solutions, and create needed champions for change.
  • Sustain the innovation via funding, technical, or legislative means.
  • Scale the innovation through expansion, replication, and diffusion strategies.
  • Use the instance of successful innovation to foster more innovations.
They then offer examples of techniques used in government to generate great ideas. They include the TSA Idea Factory, the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, and the use of “innovation scouts.”
They also recommend a small dedicated funding stream as well as the use of collaboration with “outsiders” such as the District of Columbia’s “Apps for Democracy” initiative that was a contest looking for the best uses of technology in city government.
The Obama administration has highlighted some selected agency innovations via its Open Government “Innovation Gallery,” but nothing on the scale of the Clinton-Gore reinventing government initiative of the 1990s. That effort sponsored more than 300 “reinvention labs” to pilot new ideas, and recognized front-line teams of innovators with a “hammer award” from the Vice President. 
Over 50,000 federal employees participated in these innovations. However, there was no ongoing institutional effort to take the best ideas and go to scale, or to sustain the efforts beyond the Clinton Administration. In fact, big ideas, like the effort to reduce losses from natural disasters or the effort to create Safe Cities by lowering gun violence– all died when the Clinton administration left office.
The Jitinder and Mulgan report encourage sustainability, but the “not invented here” syndrome is a political as well as a bureaucratic challenge!