Can governments innovate?

Among the many articles/blogs about Steve Jobs after his death were two in Governing Magazine last month.  One was by Robert Knisely, entitled “What Government Can (and Can’t) Learn From Steve Jobs”.  (See ttp:// .)

The other was by Ken Miller, entitled “Steve Jobs’ Legacy For Government” (  Miller argues that public leaders can adopt (adapt?) Jobs’ pattern of passion and his focus on user-centered design and simplicity.  (On a personal level, Miller suggests that public leaders adopt Jobs’ attitude to life.)

At the heart of this debate is whether government can innovate.  

First there is the assumption that public services are inherently boring.  As Miller writes:

We don’t make shiny gadgets or deliver entertainment. Our stuff isn’t magical or sexy.

Our public parks do deliver entertainment.  Everyday in public school rooms, many students are exposed to delightful experiences.  Even the creation of a water system or a highway can seem magical to those living outside big cities where these are now taken for granted, but weren’t even normal there not that long ago.

Then there is the assumption that public officials are inherently conservative.  It is true that they most often hear from the established parts of society – those who have been successful by whatever the rules have been, rather than those who are creating the new rules.  And the media does a good job of discouraging innovations by highlighting and exaggerating any failure, when some failures are a natural part of the innovation process.

Nevertheless, there is such a thing as innovation in public services and there is evidence of it, particularly at the sub-national level of government.  

Also, as politicians, public officials have the skills to accomplish dramatic organizational change if they put their minds to the task.  Indeed, they are much better organizational leaders than the typical business executive.

Today, with a majority of citizens connected via the Internet, the opportunities to be innovative in government are greater than at any time in the past.

So we should encourage public officials to innovate more.  And we should remind them of the words of perhaps America’s most successful politician, President Franklin Roosevelt:

"The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. .. We need enthusiasm, imagination …”

© 2011 Norman Jacknis


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