Just Please Don’t Appoint a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Innovative Ideas

Where is the Steve Jobs of the Department of Agriculture?

Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Courtney E. Martin laments that our best innovators are making their way to the world of high-tech and not to government. “What would happen if we leveraged the ingenuity and resources in Silicon Valley for the improvement and renewal of the rest of the country—starting in D.C., where simple solutions seem all but impossible?” Martin asks. When it comes to brilliant young innovators, “the public and government sectors are starving for their ingenuity and energy.”

Peter Drucker, we think, would both have disagreed and agreed with this passage.

Image credit: Rick Boersma/Innovation in a Box

He would have disagreed with the premise that government departments are, in general, receptive to innovative ideas. In fact, even as Drucker advised the government on how to reinvent itself, he remained a great skeptic of its ability to actually do so.

The most entrepreneurial, innovative people behave like the worst time-serving bureaucrat or power-hungry politician six months after they have taken over the management of a public-service institution, particularly if it is a government agency,” Drucker observed in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

But Drucker would whole-heartedly have agreed that public-service institutions, whether receptive to change or not, should be places of social innovation. “Innovation and entrepreneurship are . . . needed in society as much as in the economy, in public service institutions as much as in business,” Drucker wrote.

Also, he noted, history had precedents for such innovation. “Social innovation during the 75 years until the 1930s was surely as much alive, as productive, and as rapid as technological innovation if not more so,” Drucker wrote.

The main difference now is that the current need isn’t for new institutions but for social innovation within already existing entities. As Drucker put it, “To build entrepreneurial management into the existing public-service institution may thus be the foremost political task of this generation.”

Where do you see the clearest opportunities for innovation in public-service organizations?