Governments – these bureaucratic, inefficient organisations we all know – are more and more willing to reinvent themselves and their way of working. Startups can be a great inspiration source for this. Governments can adapt a startup mentality both from within via “intrapreneurship” or from the outside by buying from startups.

Innovation from within the public sector

In the past it was always preached that “governments should work more like the private sector”. But looking to startups for inspiration is different than this platitudinous notion. The old model typically compared large public sector institutions to large private sector organisations. Increasing operational efficiency used to be the main conclusion. But this is not what will foster innovation. That’s why an increasing number of organisations – both private and public – are looking into “intrapreneurship” to become truly innovative.

Public intrapreneurship is the act of behaving like an entrepreneur within a government in a process of assertive risk-taking.

These three key precepts need to be kept in mind when fostering public sector innovation:

intrapreneurship government

Source: Vocoli

  • Design working processes that increase the speed of execution and avoid red tape. Governments are characterised by heavy-weight regulatory regimes and their resistance to change. Startups, on the other hand, are guided by the “lean” way of working. The Lean Startup preaches a 3-step that focuses on iteration: building products and services, measuring the performance and learning from it. The UK Government Digital Service (GDS) is a great example of a government organisation which implemented an agile way of working.
  • Create competitions and challenges which seek to achieve bold goals. Worldwide, hackathons are being organised in order to innovate the way governments are working. The city of Ghent in Belgium created the “Apps4Ghent” challenge to develop applications which enhance the quality of life in Ghent.
  • Co-create value with citizens by crowdsourcing ideas from them. CitizenLab is a platform that allows local governments and citizens to collaborate and innovate together. The city of Ostend, for example, has a CitizenLab platform to listen to the ideas and dreams of their inhabitants. Based on their input, city projects will be created and prioritised. In this way entropy is invited inside the governments instead being kept at bay.

Buying from startups

Nowadays, innovation goes often hand in hand with digitalising the organisation. We’ve seen many nations creating “digital agendas” in order to keep up with the e-government trend and the needs of citizens. In order to increase efficiency, some governments realise that they need to fix procurement and welcome startups. The Digital Belgium agenda, for example, wants to support innovation by giving startups a chance at government contracts.

Here are a few tips on how to open up public procurement to startups:

  • Publish a clear guide to public procurement. This will provide entrepreneurs with the same information that only established vendors once had. Not only the procedure in itself but the participation requirements are often not startup friendly. The City of Los Angeles has put a document online that guides startups to this procurement process.

Steven Hodas, When Lean Startup Arrives in a Trojan Horse–Innovation in Extreme Bureaucracy

When Lean Startup Arrives in a Trojan Horse–Innovation in Extreme Bureaucracy by Steven Hodas @ The Lean Startup Conference 2013 – 12/9/13

  • Search for procurement hacks within the government. As mentioned before, red tape can often be the killer of innovation within governments. That’s why all public servants should have a good knowledge of the public procurement regulations. With this knowledge, they can then look for further solutions which could help speed up the procurement processes. The education department of New York City once mapped the whole procurement process visually and gained insights on how to “hack” the regulatory regime.

    Mapping the procurement process

    Mapping the procurement process

  • Create programs to buy from startups. Governmental organisations often don’t have the needed skills available to build in-house technological solutions and limited budgets. That’s why buying SaaS (Software as a Service) from startups can be a good solution. The city of Antwerp realised this and started the ACPaaS program. This program divides their technical challenges into chunks and invites startups to apply for them.

The Innovative State

At today’s incredibly high speed of innovation, public institutions can simply not afford to lag behind. That’s why a cultural change is needed that helps them shifting away from the extreme bureaucracy towards a leaner and more agile way of working.

Luckily, there are already many great examples that debunk the myth of the lumbering, static state — as also given in this article. If you’d have any other impressive government initiatives that help fostering innovation, don’t hesitate to make mention of them in the comment section below.

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