Dear Bureaucrat,

I thought I was in a great innovation project, but then it fell apart. Three years ago, our agency head announced we were going to be a data-driven organization. I became my branch’s representative to the task force she created to make that happen. It was exciting. We held workshops with all parts of the agency, came up with as-is and to-be descriptions of how we use data, and gave a briefing for the agency head. She said we had done great work. But, after that, when we wanted to move forward and implement parts of the to-be vision, we couldn’t get management to focus on it. Now we have a new agency head, and his chief of staff told us they are working on other priorities. I feel like all my effort was wasted. How can I tell whether an innovation project will really get results, before I invest my time and enthusiasm in it?

Signed, Tom Edison

Dear Tom,

You were part of “innovation theater,” where officials encourage employees to go through the motions of an innovation process, without letting them produce any substantive change. It sounds like this was not so bad for you. Hopefully you learned from serving on the task force, got some good material for your resume, and built relationships with your fellow members and management.

There is no way to guarantee that the next project you put your heart into will produce real innovation. But research by Sandford F. Borins shows the characteristics of projects that reached the semi-finals of the Innovations in American Government Awards. His findings can help us recognize the type of projects that move beyond innovation theater to actual innovation.

Borins found that more of the projects that reached the semi-finals were initiated by middle managers and frontline staff, rather than politicians or agency heads. So my first advice when you are trying to judge whether a project will produce actual innovation, is to see if it was initiated by middle managers and frontline staff (“local heroes” as Borins called them). Agency heads and politicians have an easier time pulling in resources for their pet projects, but the efforts that persevere and produce innovations are more often started by local heroes within agencies.

Borins also analyzed why the innovation projects were started. A few semi-finalists were responses to a crisis; that is, a publicly visible government failure. Some were in response to political influence. But the most frequent purpose by far was to solve a problem rather than respond to a crisis. So if you want to be part of real innovation, I suggest you join a project that is trying to relieve a stubborn problem, rather than one reacting to the latest headline.

Looking at the kinds of innovation that reached the semi-finals, Borins found the most frequent characteristic was collaboration, either between government agencies or between government and non-government organizations. Even such classic types of innovations as information technology and process improvement were not noted in as many semi-finalists as collaboration. The collaborations included organizations coordinating their different programs for the same members of the public, and governments sharing information to compare the cost and performance of their services. So if you are looking for a project that will produce real innovation, I think it’s a good sign if it includes collaboration across agency lines.

Government is full of innovation theater, but there are also projects that produce real innovation. If you look at who is driving the project, what it is responding to, and what methods it is using, then you have a sporting chance to tell the difference before you invest your enthusiasm.

Dear Bureaucrat provides the federal workforce with the opportunity to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the public sector. Reed has spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for large contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and is a frequent speaker at public administration conferences.

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