Seven Ways to Get Public Servants Innovating

At a company, failure leads to loss of revenue or investment — but in government, taking risks can put hospitals, schools and childcare in jeopardy. Governments have reason to be risk-averse.

It’s not just governments’ vast responsibility that holds them back from innovation: it’s the way that departments, and their incentives, are structured. “Timelines tend to be a little too short, and there are a lot of embedded power structures from department to department, which often makes cooperation and innovation difficult,” said Douglas Williamson, managing partner at the Collective Leadership Institute.

But there’s a clear need for managers to encourage greater experimentation: from 1997 to 2012, output per job grew by 24% in private sector services and only 9% in public services. Here are seven ways managers can get their employees to boost productivity by acting more like entrepreneurs.

1. Give employees cover to experiment

Fear of failure holds people back. Public servants may worry about what will happen if they stray from standard practice and their project fails. If their boss takes public responsibility for failure — and assures them it’s to be expected — civil servants will feel more secure about taking risks.

“No number of nice speeches will counter the effect of seeing someone get called out or put down for an unintended outcome. People need to know in their heart of hearts that you have their backs,” said Dave Conabree, director general of Employment Programs at the Canadian Revenue Agency.

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