What do you do if you’re a leader in a large department of the public service with an entrenched bureaucracy, and you see the need for innovation? Can you change the way that the public service does its work, when all forces are arrayed against you?
In this case, the public sector can learn from the private. Private businesses with established bureaucracies always have clear motivators for change. The need to stay in business, to compete, and to increase profits are examples of these kinds of motivators. When the choice is change or die, leaders tend to pay attention and work towards a goal.
The public service usually lacks these kinds of financial encouragements. Citizens have no other alternatives to turn to for government service. This means that the motivation for change needs to come internally or from a parliamentary or administration mandate, ideally one which mentions specific initiatives and goals.
Once there is a clear course for change, a leader can begin to reach out to others in the organization who know the bureaucracy well. Frustrated with stagnation, they should become quick allies for change. Developing a bandwagon of followers is a great way to persuade any naysayers to your cause. Great leadership also sharpens the organization’s focus on citizens and their needs, which will help overcome the natural tendency of bureaucracies to focus internally.
Finally, keep in mind that humility will win more friends in a bureaucracy than slashing and burning will. Before implementing change, ask why this particular innovation is so difficult to accomplish, and if there might be a reason for that. After all, red tape exists to maintain a large and unwieldy organization; can newer innovations do the same, but more efficiently? Leaders need to sustain focus on changes over the long term, likely for five years or more; a quick change just won’t cut that amount of entrenched red tape, or work as a suitable replacement.
What are your strategies for innovating in a bureaucracy? Do you have any tales of innovation from the Canadian public sector that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments!