I have worked in a government innovation office for the last eight years in four different roles and two different communities. In that time, I’ve had numerous conversations on what works and doesn’t work for innovation in local government. Here’s what I’ve learned: starting an innovation office in government is hard. That is not a complaint, I love the work I do, but it comes with its own challenges. When you think about many of the services government provides: Police; Fire; Health and Human Services; Information Technology; Human Resources; Finance; etc. very few people question whether government should provide those services. They may question how they are provided, who is providing them, or how much they cost, but they don’t question the service. That’s not true for innovation offices. One of the first questions I can get from people when they hear what I do is, “Why does government need an Office of Innovation.” My first answer is, “Do you like how government works? If not, then maybe there should be a group of people focused on fixing it.”
Over my career, I have come across a few lessons on how to start up an innovation office to give you the best chance for success. Some of these lessons come from listening to others, but many (probably too many) come from my own mistakes.
- Don’t overpromise: This is good advice for every new program, project, idea, or product. It is especially relevant when it relates to starting an innovation office. When innovation offices are sold to a council or elected official they are often sold as a way to completely transform an organization. Innovation offices can do great things for an organization, but it does not happen overnight. Government organizations and culture have been around for a long time. They are often slow moving and risk averse, which are not a recipe for quick changes. If you are promising immediate savings, organizational transformation, or the end to all problems you are setting yourself up for failure. That doesn’t mean you should set your own goals low. Your internal goals and plans should be high and hard to reach. I recommend keeping them to yourself until you know the organization’s culture and reception to new ideas. This will help you avoid alienating allies if you can’t deliver on the promises.
- Work with a coalition of the willing: The pressure to make a big impact right away is there for a new innovation office. That often leads to people wanting to tackle the biggest problem. That impulse is great. If you are working on innovation and you do not want to solve the big problems, this field may not be the best option for you. However, before you jump in to the big problem you need to ask, “are the people in that area willing to change what they are doing?” If that answer isn’t a resounding yes, then you may need to reconsider your project. When starting out an office, start with a coalition of the willing. Look for those partners that are excited by new ideas and are willing to put the time and effort into working with you. You are much more likely to have success with them. When your team has built credibility, then you’ll be able to tackle the trickier situations with more success.
- Don’t compare: Innovation envy is as real as social media envy. When you go to the TLG conference, or read about the case studies, you are going to see communities accomplishing great things! They’re going to show you their success in a fancy, creative and interactive presentation. Sometimes, especially when your office is just getting started, you may wish you worked somewhere where innovation was easier. Here’s the thing, I’ve done some of those fancy TLG presentations and I’ve talked with people around the country about their projects. It is never as easy as it looks. There are setbacks, reworks, failures and frustrations everywhere. Instead of comparing your community with another one, focus on the good you are doing and keep moving forward. Also, when a project is done, submit a case study for TLG. Then you can be up there sharing your amazing work and making everyone else wonder, “How did they do that?”
- Borrow – but don’t expect to cut & paste: One of the best parts about the government innovation field is the willingness of colleagues across the country to share information. If you go to TLG and see a good idea or read an interesting case study, I encourage you to reach out to the people that are presenting. In most cases, they’ll be happy to talk with you about what worked well and what mistakes they made. I’ve also had people send me example contracts, MOUs, project artifacts, and best practice research. These can be a great starting place for you on a solution or program for your government. My only word of caution is don’t expect to be able to cut and paste their solution directly into your organization. Each organization has unique culture and set of problems that can require slightly different solutions. Use other success stories for new ideas, but do not get too focused on implementing it in the same way. If you are willing to be flexible and adjust as needed, you are much more likely to be successful.
- Be relentlessly optimistic: Someone once told me innovating government requires relentless optimism. That saying has always stuck with me. Innovating government can be a frustrating business. You’ll have failures and mistakes. Things that seem like they should be easy will end up being difficult. You’ll propose a good idea only to have someone tell you that would never work here. You’ll have your skeptics. But, over time, the good ideas seem to come back around. I have had department directors come back to me years after we proposed an idea they shot down and say, “Hey remember that idea, we’d like to try it now.” Stay positive and keep pushing forward. What you do will make a difference.
These are a few lessons I have learned in my career. One last thing I keep in mind, whenever I have a frustrating day is: My goal every day is to try to make government work better for the people in my community. I don’t always succeed, but that is what I’m working to do. And, that’s not a bad way to spend a day.
Catherine Tkachyk is the Chief Innovation & Performance Officer for Cuyahoga County, Ohio. The Office of Innovation & Performance works to create an engaged and empowered workforce to strengthen the County through performance management, continuous improvement, and the cultivation of new ideas. Cuyahoga County is home to the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra, beautiful views of Lake Erie, a lovely free art museum, and since mid-2018 three professional sports teams (the Cleveland Browns can now be considered a professional team, maybe).