Getting the Work Done: What Government Innovation Really Looks Like

Report by Hana Schank and Sara Hudson: “…In 2017 and 2018, we interviewed problem-solvers working across federal, state, and local government in the United States on improving the state of government services. This movement is small compared to the number of government agencies running business as usual, but it is growing. Innovation teams, digital service teams, technologists, researchers, policymakers, lawyers, funders, and service designers are rethinking how government functions, reshaping how people solve problems, and helping to restore citizens’ faith in governing bodies.

We had both worked on these types of teams at the city and federal level, and wanted a holistic view of the work, its successes, and its challenges. We knew there were efforts across the country focused on making government work, but less work connecting the field. We had a hunch that these teams knew a lot. They had tested out strategies, saw what worked and what didn’t. We wanted to understand what all of that knowledge added up to when taken together.

Our original plan was simple: interview people “in the field” doing the work of making government work. Or work better. (We were flexible.) Ideally, find great success stories. Aggregate and distill them into lessons learned. Maybe make a playbook. Maybe make a report like this. Definitely write some pieces for national publications, because this kind of work inspires and expands through storytelling.

We focused on people improving government services through technology and citizen-centered thinking. We interviewed people from major cities to smaller locales; chief innovation officers and city managers to service designers, product managers, and engineers.

But after we started to do interviews and synthesis, we realized we had been asking the wrong questions. We wanted tactics on how to get the work done from people who had everything figured out. As it turns out, no one has it all figured out. As a community, we are still trying to answer the most basic questions. What do we call ourselves? This work? Is this a field? What do we really mean by innovation? With so much work to be done, where do we start? What’s the best way to hire people? What’s the best way to keep them once they’ve been hired? How do we affect culture change? How do we get the work done? How do we know when we’ve succeeded? How do we know when it’s time to quit?

What we have compiled in this report is neither a playbook nor a document with all the answers. Instead, this report reflects many of the things people often wonder about at work, whisper in corners at conferences, save in browser tabs, or jot in the margins at meetings to think over later: Where are we seeing solutions? Where are we seeing pain points? Who else is doing this? How are they approaching it? How do I find them?…One of the most important themes, which weaves into every piece of this report’s findings, is that people in government care. They want to make a difference, but often aren’t sure how. When given the chance to learn more, and to do better, they jump at it. We’re sharing this to lift up what many such people have learned about how to make change. We hope it inspires more people, cities, and government workers to follow suit….(More)”