Timeless Lessons for Government Innovators

Dec. 1, 2013

Adapted from an article published in Government Technology 

Throughout the history of CTG UAlbany, we have emphasized how the societal context and institutional character of government interact with information and communication technologies to shape the capabilities and influence the performance of the public sector.

We fundamentally believe innovation is a function of creative exploration of the interdependencies among public policy, public management, information resources, and technologies.

We’ve seen governments everywhere struggle to productively apply a popular strategy, policy, or technological solution to a local problem.

We’ve seen amazing successes where innovations flourish thanks to the thoughtful analysis of what is both possible and advisable in a specific time and place.

These lessons have stood the tests of time.

Take the evolving focus on data as an example.

In the spirit of knowledge sharing, we offer these timeless lessons to innovators everywhere who want information and technology to work better for government and service society.

To innovate successfully with technology you must lead with your mission, embrace learning by doing, understand and grapple with complexity, and put faith in the unsung commitment and creativity of individual professionals.

Lesson #1. Pay Attention to “Phase Zero: Before the Beginning” 

We’ve seen how untested – and even unspoken – assumptions at the outset almost guarantee unnecessary delay, expense, and dysfunction down the line.

An example from a project to improve financial services to local governments highlights the need for what we call “before the beginning” analysis.

The basic idea was to standardize and share information about municipal finances between six regional offices and the state central office so problems could be spotted early, trends would be more evident, and the right kinds of technical assistance could be offered at the right time. Simple on the surface.

However, half the project team began the project thinking this data resource would assist state officials who work with local governments and the other half thought it would be set up for local officials to use themselves.

Different users, different goals, different expectations.

We learned that critical decisions and understandings like this have to be made explicit “before the beginning.” Before a project team is fully established, before a timeline is set up, before the budget is allocated, and before any technology decisions are made.

This “phase zero” is absolutely necessary.

Don’t skip it because you can’t do a full-blown evaluation. Do what you can. Start by identifying and listening to stakeholders, gather some basic descriptive and quantitative information about the situation, and investigate at least a few existing approaches taken by others. Think of this as a version of the 80-20 rule. Eighty percent of your problems down the road can be traced to skipping the 20 percent of effort you should have spent before the beginning.

Eighty percent of your problems down the road can be traced to skipping the 20 percent of effort you should have spent before the beginning.

Lesson #2. Understand that Capability is Multi-Dimensional

Innovative capability goes far beyond its technical aspects; it also encompasses policy and organizational capability – and the ways they influence each other.

Technical advances make innovations possible, but technical expertise is not enough. You also need to promote organizational and institutional adaptation and change. Research and experience tell us that most IT project teams fail to critically assess the range of capabilities needed to succeed. Our view of capability helps innovators take into account the importance of context and four key characteristics of full capability.

  • Capability is multidimensional — it comprises a variety of essential attributes – leadership, readiness, governance, policies, data assets, technical knowledge, and more. All these contribute to overall capability.

  • Capability is complementary — high or low overall levels of capability can result from different combinations of factors, high levels in some dimensions can often compensate for lower levels in others.

  • Capability is dynamic — it can increase or diminish due to changing conditions within an initiative or in its external environment.

  • Capability is specific to its setting — some elements of capability apply to all settings, but capability for any particular project must be assessed relative to its own specific objectives and environment.

Think of these four characteristics as a checklist for approaching any innovation or problem-solving effort:

  • Have you identified and considered all the relevant dimensions of capability?

  • Have you mapped all the complementarities? Do you have a plan for responding to changing needs?

  • Are you confident that you understand the specific setting well enough to make these judgments?

If the answer is yes in all cases, our experience says your project is much more likely to succeed than to contribute to the too-high failure rate of IT innovation.

Lesson #3. Learn to Work Across Boundaries 

Essential public services and programs have become the responsibility of complex inter-organizational networks of public, private, and non-profit entities.

Scholars and practitioners alike recognize that complex societal needs and strategies to meet them, demand the ability to work across departments, agencies, professions, sectors, governments, even nations. The ability to work effectively across boundaries has become a core competency for government professionals worldwide.

The need to share information lies at the heart of this, and it often involves sharing information for a purpose that was not its original intent. The challenges increase with the number of boundaries, the number and types of information to be shared, and the number of technical and organizational processes to be changed or integrated.

The challenges can differ widely in their scope and detail.

An effort to increase case closures by linking databases and case management in a district attorney’s office is less problematic than an attempt to create a statewide crime communications network.

The first involves a single organization operating under one leader. The second involves many organizations at several levels of government pursuing related but different objectives in diverse but overlapping programs with different policies, practices, and data resources.

Neither type is easy, but the second has special demands for governance, communication, problem-solving, and resource sharing.

Practical Resources for Government Managers 

Partnering for Innovative Solutions to Practical Problems

Creating and sharing knowledge is one of the founding principles of CTG UAlbany.

One way we live up to this principle is by translating the lessons we learn from working directly on problem-solving projects with governments into guidance documents and analytical tools and techniques that can be used by others. One set of tools focuses particularly on helping governments build capability for innovation.

Successful IT innovations and the transformation they seek to support, depend as much on the policy environment and how well the organizations and individuals perform as on the chips, networks, and software. They involve understanding and working with the interdependencies among policy, management, technology, and data within a specific context. They start with a candid assessment of where they are before deciding how to get where they need to go.

We learned these lessons by working with some of the most innovative, dedicated, and persistent public managers you will ever meet. We look forward to working with many more.

Theresa Pardo, Director
Sharon Dawes, Senior Fellow