Everything you know about innovation is wrong

When it comes to redesigning how government functions, most of the common assumptions about innovation don’t hold up, write Sara Hudson and Hana Schank in “The Government Fix,” a new essay series published in partnership with New America.

Everything you know about innovation is wrong

We know what happened the last time you had to interact with the government. Most likely you came away feeling pretty bad about it, possibly grumbling about where your tax dollars go. You filled out a form. Maybe it was 5 pages, maybe it was 50 pages. Whatever the length, it seemed unnecessarily long for the task at hand. Then you mailed it or emailed or maybe even brought it somewhere in person, packing yourself water and snacks in case the wait was long, as though you were headed off on a day hike and not to a drab government office. Then you waited for an indeterminate amount of time. Maybe it was a week, maybe it was months, maybe you still are waiting, even now. You wondered if anything would happen as a result of turning in this form. You figured it was likely you’d have to repeat the process.


We know this was your interaction, because this is every interaction with government. It doesn’t matter if you’re renewing your passport or trying to become a citizen, applying for affordable housing or securing permits to renovate your house, the experience is the same. And so are most people’s expectations of how that process will go. It will be annoying. It will be tedious. There might be yelling.

In a world where you can order shoes, dinner, and a hammer from your couch with a few swipes of your finger, the divide between how we do things with government and how we do nearly everything else has become chasm-like. The way that most services are delivered today involve technology. But government is hopelessly behind when it comes to buying, building, and using technology–and the killer combination of a lack of internal expertise and a lack of funds has led to some spectacular failures. (Did you try to pay your taxes online on tax day this year? How did that go?)

This lack of expertise means that some of the most basic ways citizens expect to receive services simply don’t exist. We go through our days booking hotels and buying toasters in seconds, but when we need to do something that impacts our very survival, interactions around some of the most vital and important things we will ever do–securing early intervention services for a child who isn’t talking yet, getting married, requesting assistance so we can feed our families–we enter a time machine and slip into a world where the internet and customer service don’t yet exist.

This chasm isn’t just frustrating, it’s eroding any remaining trust we have that government is there to help us. The more removed our experiences with government feel from our day-to-day lives, the less we trust that government will make good on its promises. Not the vague campaign promises about more jobs and lower taxes, which we only half-heartedly believe anyway. The concrete promises implicit in any day-to-day interaction. The promise that when you update your credit card on the EZ Pass site, the toll arm will reliably swing upward to let your car pass the next time you drive across a toll.

Or the promise that when you enter an affordable housing lottery by bringing 10 pieces of documentation to a government building and waiting nine months, you will end up with subsidized housing. The kinds of promises we take for granted from the private sector feel like a leap of faith when it comes to government. These are the promises that matter, and these are the ways that government fails us on a daily basis.

Even worse: This chasm is dangerous. Government impacts the most basic and fundamental elements of our lives–housing, food, health, education, identity. When government fails to fill potholes, people get in accidents. When government websites fail, people can’t sign up for healthcare or pay their taxes. When government fails to protect SNAP recipients from being cut off from their benefits info, families can’t plan their next meal. When government fails to ensure the water is clean, communities get sick and children die.

These failures and this chasm can be at least partially attributed to one simple fact: Government has not kept up with the private sector when it comes to customer service and technology. The concept of customer service itself is relatively recent, invented in the ’70s as businesses came to understand that they could attract more customers by being helpful than by having long lines and byzantine processes. It’s only in the past 15 years that the idea of service design has really taken hold in the private sector, with companies like Disney, Progressive, Jetblue, and others pioneering a customer-centric approach in their work, looking for ways to make painful processes less so, researching what is most important to their customers and figuring out how to put those things at the center of their business.


As an institution, government does not function as though it is in the customer service business. Instead, agencies at both the federal and local level operate under the assumption that services simply need to be carried out, not that they need to be carried out well. No one in government is rewarded for customer satisfaction. We know this because we’ve had our own frustrating attempts to interact with government as constituents and residents. We also know it because we’ve tried to fix it as government technologists working at the city, state, and federal levels. Those of us who have worked in government know that recommendations to put metrics in place, reduce wait times, or simplify processes for citizens can often be met with puzzled looks, as though all of those things are beside the point.

All of the motivating forces that exist in the private sector fall away when it comes to government. No federal employee is worried that you might go somewhere else to pay your taxes, or that you’ll get so annoyed with trying to renew your passport that you apply for one from another country. Civil servants aren’t rewarded with big bonuses because food stamp applicants love the application process. And to make matters worse, government isn’t a single monolithic entity, but a hugely complex system of policy-writing, legislation creation, budgeting, buying things, building things, and actually delivering them.

Service delivery is often reliant on a single vendor (there are so few government employees in most agencies that many functions are carried out by vendors), with lucrative contracts and no incentive to change. And the stated goals of most agencies don’t include citizen satisfaction–simply delivering services often feels like enough of a challenge. (The Department of Homeland Security’s goal is to prevent terrorism. They don’t care if you had a good experience when you went through TSA.) So simply the idea that government is in the service design business is a radical rethinking of everything that has come before.

And when it comes to building and deploying technology, government is hopelessly behind, attempting to patch systems built as far back as the 1950s, building new systems that fail, and then shelling out more money to fix the failures. The public seems gobsmacked every time the lack of technical expertise in government is laid bare for all to see. As the nation watched Mark Zuckerberg try to explain the internet to Congress, you could feel people’s heads exploding at the realization that the people who run our country don’t really understand what Facebook is.

This is old news for anyone who has worked in government, but it can’t continue. Citizens now expect to do everything online. (They have for some time.) So creating new policies or rolling out new programs will become increasingly difficult without functioning technology. Case in point: There is no Affordable Care Act without a functional healthcare.gov website. Websites and digital systems and customer service are now an integral part of providing citizens services; government has no choice but to catch up.

There are people who believe all of this is fixable–the bad technology, the ignorance around service design, the ever-widening gulf between how much easier it is to get things done when the private sector supplies things you need or want (Uber! Waze! Fresh Direct!) instead of when government does (Amtrak, drivers’ license renewals, building inspections). And their numbers are growing. Innovation teams, digital service teams, technologists, researchers, and service designers are rethinking how government functions, reshaping how people in federal, state, and local agencies solve problems, and helping to restore citizens’ faith in governing bodies.

Over the past nine months, the two of us have interviewed nearly 70 people working across federal, state, and local agencies to improve government services through technology and citizen-centered thinking. We were interested in hearing what these teams were learning as they undertook work that can often be hard, thankless, and sometimes heartbreaking. (Stories about how government fails people in their time of greatest need don’t tend to be cheery and good for the soul.) So we spoke with teams in major cities and smaller locales.

We interviewed chief innovation officers, city managers, service designers, product managers and engineers, among others. For the most part these teams are new–the oldest is typically thought to be Boston’s New Urban Mechanics team, which formed in 2010–and there is no set playbook around how to redesign government. So the people doing this work are often taking their best shot, applying practices taken from the private sector, following common sense approaches, or intuiting what they know about simply making stuff better.


This type of work is typically lumped under the header of “innovation” in both the public and private sectors. But what we learned from our research is that in the public sector, the most effective innovation teams are working on problems that at first glance are less about radical innovation than simply a leveling-up of services. In government, simply getting things to function properly, or as expected, is innovative. And moreover, when it comes to redesigning how government functions, most of the common assumptions about innovation don’t hold up.

In this series, we’ll be exploring what government innovation really looks like. The innovations that make headlines are often about splashy things like Hyperloop trains or self-driving Ubers, but we found that innovation at its most basic level–at the level with the biggest benefit to citizens–has nothing to do with the types of creations that inspire hyperventilating news stories. The people who are doing the innovating are almost never the people we commonly hear about. In popular mythology, innovation requires whiz kids, flown in from Silicon Valley and paid top government dollar to stay up all night and code away our problems.

But the real change makers are often people who have worked in and around government for years, or are people who are deeply invested in serving their communities, or people who simply like intractable problems. We’ll share stories that show that government innovation isn’t about moving fast and breaking things. In fact, some of the greatest successes have come from small, slow, methodical changes–from breaking off bite-sized problems and doggedly working out the knots. And finally, we’ll discuss why this work is so hard. If you work in government long enough, eventually a concerned citizen (i.e.,  some dude you just met at a cocktail party) will ask “Why can’t the government just do X?” Well, we’ll tell you why.

But above all, what we’ve learned from our research is that there is hope. Yes, government is slow and bureaucratic and infuriating. Yes, trying to solve all of the problems can make you want to beat your head against a wall. But ultimately we’ve been inspired by the stories we heard and the work people are doing. There are good people working in government. Lots of them. They care deeply when government doesn’t deliver on its promises. And it’s not just the people at the top. In New York, a service design team recently opened up office hours to any city employee who wanted to get help on a project. They were overwhelmed with requests–from not only N.Y.C. agencies, but also but from people working in government across the country.

Their appointment slots fill up months in advance. 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. In this series, we’ll be sharing what we’ve learned about how to truly make change. And we hope it inspires more people, cities, and government workers to follow suit.

Sara Hudson is a public interest  technology fellow at New America, researching government innovation efforts across the country. She is the creator of NOLA Ready, the City of New Orleans’s one-stop shop for information before, during, and after disasters; a former digital services expert at the Department of Justice; and a freelance writer.

Hana Schank is a public interest technology fellow at New America, researching government innovation efforts across the country. Her second book, The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building A Life, will be published by Viking this June.

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