No risk, no innovation: the double-bind for the public sector

Apolitical: “The political incentives to risk public money are non-existent – it’s too easy to see the short-term political consequences of initiatives gone wrong and debate whether taxpayers’ money is going down the drain. Public money is to be spent according to rules and regulations.”

This is how Jon Simonsson, Head of Innovation, Research and Capital at Sweden’s Ministry for Enterprise and Innovation, sees the potential for public servants to take risks. You may think that someone in Simonsson’s line of work – government innovation – would assume a more entrepreneurial mindset, but he’s hardly alone….

Government incentives for risk, meanwhile, don’t really exist. If you pull off a major improvement in service delivery, you don’t get a bump in compensation or promoted faster. It can feel really scary because any time you take a risk, you know that if you fail you’ll deal with criticism from the public,” said Reed.

Reed believes that the best way for governments to champion innovation is for them to institute programs and spaces designated for experimentation. San Francisco does this with several projects designed for collaboration between startups and government employees, like Startup in Residence, through which public agencies work with entrepreneurs. The startup employees give city officials a fresh perspective on long-standing civic problems, and help them prototype and user-test solutions. “[The government] tells public servants that this is sanctioned risk, and they’ll have moral support,” said Reed.

The City of West Hollywood, in Los Angeles, takes a similar approach. It recently instituted a two-person innovation division to act as consultants for its entire staff.

“Working with an innovation lab challenges your assumptions. That journey can be confronting and quite challenging to many people”

“I think government has a responsibility to take risks – we need to cultivate a culture of innovation, and sometimes that means spending money on projects that support staff ideas,” said Kate Mayerson, the city’s Innovation Analyst. “There’s something a little magical here: leadership that supports innovation and risk-taking from the top down.”…(More)”.