Surprise! Creativity in the Public Sector

Jes Howen McBride at Good Magazine: “….As a watchword, “innovation” has been slow to infiltrate the public sector. We are a nation of private inventors and public regulators. However, while this bizarre gem of a cover page may not signify a major event, I see it as an indicator of where the public sector is headed. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, a CalTrans supervisor said of the cover, “This was an innovative project… We wanted people to notice the document and open it up.” And it worked. This “innovative project” brought attention to the 1,300-page report, which was not mentioned in local media until people noticed the unconventional cover page.

Less than a month later, the mayor of Los Angeles perpetuated the theme of public sector ingenuity by announcing an “Innovation Fund.” The Fund will support creative solutions proposed not by professionals in the art or tech industries, but by city employees. Anyone from janitors to general managers will be able to submit original ideas to improve the status quo. This initiative acknowledges the innovative potential in city staff and, moreover, provides funding to effectively tap into that potential.
The idea of creative change within the public sector aligns with the philosophy behind the Startup Cities Institute. Their model encourages unconventional ideas to be implemented by cities on a small scale to find solutions to problems in governance, infrastructure, and similar challenges. The key concept in this approach is that innovation comes not only from outside city hall, but from inside as well. Even though planners love guerrilla urbanism, it’s pretty spectacular when city government pulls off a good surprise. Some of my favorite “surprise-innovations” are New York’s Time Square beach chairs, Bogata’s traffic control mimes, and Hans Monderman’s naked streets, all conceived and executed by the public sector.
Innovative acts can be found everywhere. I have many friends in creative industries, but also some who are nurses, teachers, social workers, and full-time parents, and they are among the most creative people I know. I work for the City of Los Angeles in the Planning Department. I have seen the political and logistical challenges that the public sector is up against, but I am convinced that we can meet these challenges with novel ideas, fresh perspectives, and unconventional approaches. (And maybe some ‘90s clip art.) We can serve the public as well as delight them. That is the future of public service.…”