December 25, 2003

Public Sector Innovation

Mark Kleiman has a great post asking why the Public Sector isn't more innovative. Warning: Long!

As someone who has had experience in local government, as well as the private sector, let me take s quick stab at it.

At the worker bee level, my experience is that most public employees are as dedicated to their job as someone in a similar private position. In many cases where the salary is far less than can be made in the private sector (IT and Engineering, for example), the dedication is even more pronounced, as these people are intentionally getting paid less than market value.

Yes you'll find people who's job is to produce CYA memos and yes you'll find bureaucrats, but no more than they exist in a private corporation. The difference is that as public employees, everything that they do is public record, whereas such an employee in a private corporation is simply fired, and they move on. Nothing short of a Tyco level scandal will bring this person's scandals to light.

As plaintiff's exhibit A, see the efforts to recall this cad. Had he been employed by a private company, he would have been fired (hopefully), but either way, he would not have been a public issue.

When employed by public government, and at a high enough managerial level, you are ultimately employed at the discretion of the board of directors, the city council,the mayor, etc. Even if you aren't a political appointee, your boss , or the elected official that your boss reports to is.

Still with me? I hope so. So you're either one or two steps removed from being shitcanned at the whim of a couple of people who are mainly driven by politics. If you aren't removable by the politicos, your boss is, and if they want you gone badly enough, they will put someone above you who will make you absolutely miserable.

So what do you do? If you stick your neck out as an innovator, you end up taking credit for the good, but taking heat for the bad. Some people will do this, but many hunker down and play politics like the people above them on the org chart. Unfortunately, this usually leads to compromise or gridlock, which leads to nobody moving forward very fast on anything, which leads to a lack of innovation. More on this later.


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