Thursday, November 30, 2017

I'm Back

This week I begin the next phase of my working life.  I have retired from government service after some 10 years at the helm of a provincial emergency measures organization. You will notice a long gap in my posts, that was not of my choosing but as a senior official I was advised that there could be a perceived conflict. That constraint has been removed.

I have considerable time on my hands and no less passion for emergency management, resilience and good public policy so I hope to contribute to the growing professional dialogue via blogging and other professional social media.

Lately I have been pondering the challenge of innovation within government.  My experience leads me to conclude the that the desire to innovate runs contrary to the desire to control all activities in a risk adverse world.

Staff have a deep and diverse understanding of what works well and what needs change in their program area.  Senior leaders are continually messaging the need for innovation to improve government services to the public and openly encourage staff to innovate.  But in the journey from idea to execution it would seem to the innovators, the system of control (DM committees, TB secretariat as well central agencies for procurement, technology and HR) are put in place to test the innovators resolve.

Think of it like this:  a manager has an idea to improve his/her program. First they have to convince their bosses (and maybe their boss's boss) that the idea has merit and is worth the effort (not easy in times of dwindling resources).  Most change in government involves some combination of new equipment, new technology or changes to the work force.  Now it is up to the innovator to get buy in from one or more of the central agencies to support their idea for change. You are now asking managers outside your program area and ministry/department to set aside space in their agenda to facilitate your crazy new idea.  Not easy and we still have asked for money, which is another exercise in breaking through the control mechanisms.  I know many managers who have run this gauntlet only to watch their idea wither from a lack of support.

True innovation culture allows freedom to experiment at all levels of the organization.  It requires a level of trust of management and a willingness to allow failure.  In today's risk adverse culture that seems nearly impossible.

So while senior leaders continue the mantra of the need to innovate it rings hollow when it is not accompanied by the necessary freedom of actions and a true culture of trust and innovation.

I am sure there are examples of organizational culture in government which embraces and delivers true innovative services to the public and I would be happy to hear of them in response to this rant.

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