Some time ago I happened upon a Steve Jobs interview where he shared his view that the system is stacked against the innovators of the world — when you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to work and to live inside that world. You shouldn’t try to bash in the walls too much…work hard, have fun, save a little money. Basically, live a limited life.
Sadly, government as an industry tends to reinforce that creed. The civil service and compensation rules make it hard to hire talent and reward outstanding performance (and even harder to penalize poor performance); there is very little incentive for taking risks on policies or programs; authority and responsibility is scattered across so many agencies and actors that holding anyone accountable is hard; and a tangle of often outdated regulations and Congressionally-mandated legislation leaves little room for innovation. On top of all of that, evidence-based decision making is hard to come by (not a lot of data and technology lovers in government) and hard to do (because of a lack of organized and comparable data across programs and agencies).
I spent some 20 years in government, so I observed these challenges first-hand. Now, I was lucky to have served my last five years in government at the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), one of the most innovative and experimental agencies in the U.S. government. MCC has been pretty fearless in terms of publicly sharing its results, opening its data and its codes and feeding learning back into new programming. But even there, the bureaucracy of government (including Congress) constantly challenges intrapreneurs who want to drive an operating strategy focused on “getting to yes”, experimenting often, failing forward, collaborating across agencies and setting, measuring and sharing results. While these management challenges are not entirely unique to government, there are unique circumstances government managers face that private sector managers do not. (Jan Mares, a senior executive in the Reagan and Bush administrations as well as Union Carbide, does a wonderful job at outlining these differences.) Changemakers have to work hard and be relentlessly persistent in recalling Steve Jobs’ reminder of one simple fact: “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”
And so today’s launch by the ever-influential and inspiring Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation of its new publication “Smarter Government for Social Impact: A New Mindset for Better Outcomes,” stewarded by former Deputy Secretary of Education Jim Shelton, is a must-read for changemakers everywhere. It is a reminder to those working hard within government now to drive innovation, experiment and focus on results that there is a movement afoot — a slow but steady build-up of outcomes-based policies and programs at work now. An outcomes mindset, the report argues, is an approach which defines at the outset the measurable end results you want to achieve, but does not prescribe the process or set of activities to get there. Rather, it sets innovation and alliances of actors free to test a variety of approaches, and it uses data, technology and new financing vehicles that incentivize doing what works. There are new financing models like Pay for Success in Cuyahoga County and Social Impact Bonds underway in Salt Lake City, New York and Massachusetts; innovation officers and centers within government; efforts to build alliances of partners collectively delivering against a set of impact measures; knowledge-sharing infrastructure like CITIE that helps policymakers create sound environment for innovation and entrepreneurship; and innovative hiring mechanisms like Peace Corps term limits which embed a rejuvenation and innovation mindset, something the MCC at the outset strived hard to secure but was ultimately denied. These examples and others are part of the roadmap outlined in the Beeck Center report that show those currently serving in government “the art of the possible.” The hope is that these pockets of progress serve as proof of concept for how government can work better to achieve the larger systemic changes needed to scale social change.
The report is also a call to duty to those outside government whose talents are required within and around government to really put into practice a new mindset for learning and better outcomes. Leaders willing to work across party lines, across agencies and with Congress to drive smart policy and allow for “smart failure” that will then inform future best practice. Data analytics experts who can bring the power of data and technology to the policymaking table to accelerate evidence accumulation. And mission-driven employees who understand the important roles that open data, open code, collaboration and transparency play in driving results for the American citizens that government is intended to serve – yes, Millennials, the government needs you!
Let’s return to that Steve Jobs quote – or better yet, to Ashton Kutcher’s Teen Choice Award speech where he “millennializes” it to three lessons for changemakers: (1) Seize opportunity: opportunity looks a lot like hard work; (2) Be sexy: there’s nothing sexier than being smart, thoughtful and generous; and (3) Live life: remember that life was built by those no smarter than you – don’t sit on the sidelines. Build a life don’t just live one.
Of the $1.11 trillion FY2015 discretionary budget, only 1% was allocated to specific outcomes-focused initiatives. Imagine the life we could build if we could collectively tip just a little more of those trillions in that direction.