Innovation runs much deeper than its name

Cheryl Chung
Cheryl Chung

In this introduction to Vision’s focus on government innovation, strategist Cheryl Chung discusses how and why governments should serve their citizens in a modern fashion

As the operating environment for the state has undergone a radical shift in recent years, it has become more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. How is the state affected?

Its jurisdiction has grown beyond mere geographical boundaries, the influence of non-state actors such as big multinationals has increased, and digital technologies have changed expectations of the policy-making process. These developments will present both risks and opportunities.

When a country faces a problem, citizens often look first to the government to solve it. You only have to look at people tweeting President Obama to see how social media has increased our expectation of civic response. However, while the public expectations of government have increased, actual resources that are available to the state have decreased.

The innovator will usually frame the changes in the operating environment as a challenge to the bureaucratic incumbent. Governments, like many large organisations, have established hierarchies of power and decisionmaking and can suffer from status quo bias. There is tremendous inertia to change the strategy when it has worked well in the past, and as Clayton Christensen put it, this allows innovators to “sneak in, change the rules of the game, and capture market share”.

Framing the discussion as bureaucrats versus innovators is not particularly useful. Societies decide for themselves what the good life is and should share in the responsibility to make this happen. These might range from tangible goals such as 100 per cent literacy, to more abstract aims such as happiness. For example, economic growth is not chased for the sake of mere economic growth – it is pursued to create jobs, improve standards of living, increase the living wage, and better public services. If a country experiences jobless economic growth, that clearly is not desirable. An inclusive conversation about governance must be had and various stakeholders in societies should collectively negotiate what the policy and societal goals should be.

Therein lies the opportunity for the state to partner and collaborate with other stakeholders. In countries like the UK, social entrepreneurs have blossomed in this environment, where they have found innovative solutions to social challenges and share in the responsibility of state governance.

Economic growth is not chased for its own sake – it is pursued to create jobs, improve standards of living and increase the living wage

Cheryl Chung, Deputy Director of Strategic Planning at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

A networked governance model emerges, where the state is one player – and no doubt a large and a powerful one – and governance happens through the other players, too. Networked governance means that everyone contributes to coming up with new and innovative solutions. The state can play a facilitation role, providing tools, creating platforms for experimentation and opening up space to allow other stakeholders to take a little initiative.

Governments need not be overly concerned with naming what it is they do as innovation. As long as what they do is inclusive, forward-looking and they feel free to be experimental and user-focused – that’s what truly matters.

I recently visited the Hive, the office of Government Data Services in Singapore. It was lunchtime and a number of young software developers were playing ping pong. Agile teams managed the development of a new public service app with a schedule of Post-Its stuck to the wall. It felt like I was in a Silicon Valley technology start-up and witnessing the real-life mash-up of a number of key trends: increasing demand for public services; rising millennial workforce; expanding data analytics capabilities; and the future of work.

During my visit, I was struck by how energetic and motivated the staff were. A member of our group asked our host why a young programmer would join the government, rather than joining Google or Twitter. I felt encouraged that they made the choice to code for public good. The responsibility of the wider system – whether it be government, private sector, or an amalgamation of these parts – is to provide support. It must recognise when to bring experience and expertise to the table, as well as when to take a chance on an innovation.

Everybody is learning, and the approach should be one of collaboration. If we all bumble along together, we’ll get there eventually.

Cheryl Chung is Deputy Director of Strategic Planning at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Prior to joining the School, Cheryl worked in the Singapore Government to help to shape its futures programme