Yes, Innovation in Government is Possible!

Government is usually the last place some would expect to discover innovation.

Historically, though, government has been the birthplace of many of the inventions and advancements that make our lives much easier, including the internet and GPS (Global Positioning Systems). These are both groundbreaking ideas that the U.S. government initially created to improve internal functions; both ideas eventually transcended their internal systems to be a part of our daily lives.

Modern-day government, however, is not built to foster creativity. Due to high public scrutiny, limited available resources, compliance barriers and volatile political environments, there is no room for error, risk or failure. Traditional funding structures and increasingly smaller operating budgets have also stifled innovation in the governmental sector. One of the most common barriers to fully functional government systems is a pattern of operating in silos. No matter how high-functioning departments are, if they aren’t working in coordination with other departments within their space, systems’ change can’t happen.

In order to respond to the complex needs and challenges that citizens face every day, government agencies need to drastically change their systems to collaborate across systems and departments and incorporate citizen engagement.

Montgomery County recently changed their entire building design to better host customers.

Fortunately, the power of design thinking not only brings stakeholders to the table, but makes room for them to design and co-create with government leaders. Over the last year, Design Impact had the opportunity to work with two government entities that are eager to explore innovation: the City of Nashville and Montgomery County Job and Family Services (MCJFS) in Dayton, Ohio. Both organizations partnered with DI to improve the design of their systems and drive innovation into their work. Additionally, both the City of Nashville and Montgomery County struggled with working in silos; moving beyond these silos became core to both projects.

In Nashville, DI focused on cross-departmental collaboration by redesigning the Mayor’s Office of Innovation’s Ideas to Reality (I2R) program, an eight-week program with five major goals:

  1. Build professional capacity in innovation.
  2. Empower participants as change agents in government.
  3. Identify and strengthen cross-department partnerships.
  4. Design innovative approaches to pressing local needs.
  5. Incorporate design thinking tools and methods in the existing program structure.
One of the teams from Nashville 12r working through a session.

I2R was hugely successful – by the end of the program, participants had deepened their problem-solving skills, and increased their ability to collaborate and collectively deal with organizational changes. As a result of the program, participants also gained more confidence in themselves as creative leaders after going through the I2R program. Read more outcomes in our case study here.

Meanwhile, Design Impact’s work in Dayton began with a desire for government culture change. Because MCJFS had been operating in silos, leadership at MCJFS wanted to create a culture of collaboration within their organization that would better serve their customers. DI used the design thinking process to work with the MCJFS team using engagement sessions, observations and interviews with customers, frontline staff and leadership to understand and co-design new approaches. As a result, MCJFS staff created cross-organizational staff trainings, they built trust between leaders and frontline staff through a shadowing program, and vastly improved customer experience and connections through a new staff position and a room redesign to simplify the form-retrieval process, relieving pain points for customers.

It’s clear that government alone can’t and shouldn’t solve for the wicked social problems we see today. DI continues to learn from its work with government leaders about the best way to innovate on a large scale and often through outdated systems and services. What we do know is that the complex needs and challenges that citizens face every day need new solutions. In today’s divisive political climate where inequity is on the rise, government agencies must drastically change their systems and alter their functions if they want to respond to true constituent need. It will take encouragement and engagement of the citizenry, as well as the use of divergent approaches, to reach better outcomes. In addition, our governments need to hold creative space that will not only allow and encourage creativity, but that protects innovation from the scrutiny and the volatility that political environments bring.

By Tamaya Dennard
Social and Civic Innovation Specialist