September 30, 2015
Seeking the Sweet Spot
The first rule of public sector programs is: Get political buy-in! Implementers need political support at both the strategic and operational levels to get approvals and resources.
For open government innovators—people pushing boundaries and challenging conventional attitudes about how government works—this advice is even more important. Open government initiatives are often designed and implemented by people who are new to government and working within specialized innovation units. This, combined with the essentially collaborative and cross-sectoral nature of such efforts, means that they need counterparts within other government agencies to carry out the projects that make up any open government program. Thus, the selection and development of projects and partners is essential to programmatic success: Without the sustained interest and commitment of the right people inside those agencies, the projects will wither away.
Reboot recently had the opportunity to closely accompany an open government program implemented by the Mexican government: Innovation Agents is a fellowship that pairs government insiders and outsiders to spur innovative approaches to problem solving. In the first generation, five teams developed technology-based solutions to pressing policy problems for five government agencies.
One of the lessons we learned firsthand through our developmental evaluation of the program was that there is a “sweet spot” for the level of political buy-in. If implementers can’t align with the political priorities of their counterparts, they may never develop the institutional ties needed to make lasting change, or even get a project off the ground. Failure to gain enough political buy-in is, unfortunately, a familiar experience for program implementers. We saw one of the Innovation Agents projects struggle to attract the minimum political interest to secure institutional linkages with the right people inside their host agency, even though citizens reacted well to their product.
On the other hand, there can be such a thing as too much political buy-in, when high-level interest from too many meddling interested colleagues closes off the space needed to experiment and risk failure. To highlight this less-discussed risk, we share here a story of this less-common—but no less frustrating—possibility: one Innovation Agents project that attracted so much political importance that it temporarily faced “priority paralysis.”
This project had significant political support right from the start of the fellowship; in fact, it was almost totally integrated into the plans of a specific department. However, this tight interweaving of the department (and Ministry’s) strategic priorities with a pilot project that was intended to be nimble and experimental led to some paralysis. In an early conversation, the team members framed the project as something that was originally small, but that had become a priority:
“Now that there is this new focus on the project as well, there is more pressure for the pilot to deliver a good product. We don’t want to waste this opportunity, so it’s better to deliver it late, but to have a good product that demonstrates the right things.”
The pilot became so important that its leadership felt it needed to be almost perfect, and they hesitated to start prototyping. Months later, a desire to complete their commitment to the Innovation Agents program by delivering a finished product influenced a different take.
At that stage, Ministry-wide integration became a barrier to product development. When deadlines neared, the team decided to trade off the focus on institutional integration and instead deliver an independent project. While this shift helped them deliver a working product, its future is now in question because it was not integrated into the processes of the institution where it was originally meant to live.
So, how to find that sweet spot? There is no magic formula, as needed support depends on what a project seeks to achieve. In general, implementers are still more likely to suffer from too little high-level interest than too much. But in selecting a potential project for an experimental public sector innovation program—and working to build interest for one underway—here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
Look for projects that have political awareness and a supportive environment, but be wary of those that already have pre-developed (and inflexible) expectations.
Focus on the minimum information that counterparts need to feel included at key points, without stoking worries or overreactions to the inevitable ups and downs of innovation.
Tout the project’s impact potential, but emphasize that it is a proof of concept—consider how you might adapt the old adage, “under-promise, over-deliver,” as you sustain interest.
Develop a clear description of the steps you hope to take after the pilot is a success; describing these farther-down-the-road activities may help alleviate scrutiny and unrealistic expectations for your immediate work. (And, this might help you take a bit of pressure off yourself as well!)
Editor’s Note: In the coming months, Reboot will be releasing more “lessons learned,” like this one, from our collaboration with the Innovation Agents team. Please subscribe to our newsletter, and we’ll keep you updated on new releases.