Innovation in Government: What We Are Missing

Mayors Boris Johnson of London and Mike Bloomberg of NYC at this week’s CityLab conference.

I just returned from London where I attended the terrific 3rd annual CityLab conference organized by the Atlantic Magazine and the Bloomberg Foundation, with support of the Aspen Institute. I am inspired.

In two days I met and spoke with dozens of people, part of over 400 who were in attendance who are working tirelessly on trying to figure out how to make cities work better for the people who live in them, and by extension better for the other 50 percent of the world’s population who don’t. In presentations including a very strong and passionate one by former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg, I heard many people including mayors of other major cities speak with enthusiasm about their efforts, some successful, some not, to instill innovation in government.

Also speaking and sharing their passion were dozens of civic entrepreneurs who are working in and outside of government trying to solve some of society’s thorniest problems. Among them were Mike Bracken, the recently departed director of the U.K. Government Digital Service, Sascha Haselmayer of CityMart, Catherine Bracy of Code for America, Ben Hecht of Living Cities, Dominic Campbell of FutureGov, ElsaMarie D’Silva of Safe City, Hillary Hartley of 18F, and many others. Also participating were leaders from the community of funders supporting government innovation including Alaina Harkness of the MacArthur Foundation, Alissa Black from the Omidyar Network, and and Geoff Mulgan of NESTA.

The topics covered were not just the usual perennial ones associated with government innovation (or the lack thereof) like procurement, transportation, congestion, public housing and health, crime, citizen engagement, or sustainability in the face of global warming. CityLab also grappled with new ones ripped from the front pages such as the refugee crisis, the lack of trust between police and citizens, and the various disruptive sharing economy issues.

For those of you in the civic innovation arena who were not there, don’t worry, you were not only well represented by peers who are echoing your work, you should take comfort in knowing that the community of people working together to make government work better for citizens around the world is as robust as it has ever been.


In the last several years we have seen an incredible new interest in the potential for technological and other forms of innovation to re-invent government and with it rejuvenate the civic experience. What is different now is the number of government leaders and staff participating in various initiatives seems far greater, more earnest, and certainly more sincere. This, coupled with the fact that the information technologies are now more ubiquitous, more powerful, and getting easier to use. Their impact can be more accurately measured than even a short time ago. There is a great deal to feel optimistic about.

Other innovations that are not in themselves technological are being more easily evangelized, shared, and replicated because of information technology. Among them are new designs of the physical layout of cities like this, how to animate cities with culture, and how to prepare them for the changing global workforce and climate change.

For someone who has been working in the civic innovation arena for almost 20 years, I am truly amazed at how large the community interest has become. However as optimistic the trend seems to be, I still sense we are all missing something fundamental that is preventing any of our collective work from becoming transformative to the degree we want.

Yes, it can be fairly argued that “Government” has truly joined the innovation revolution. We have all the buzz words, sayings, and titles that are commensurate and borrowed from or inspired by the private sector such as “disrupting” government, “open government data,” “offices of innovation,” or “urban mechanics,” “participatory budgeting,” “Gov 2.0,” “government as a platform,” “govtech,” “civic tech”, etc. But “Government” is still underpinned by something many of us pay lots of attention to but few of us know how to “disrupt” or “innovate.”

That’s politics.

We all see results when we design and build better systems wherever that might be. But the system we use for delivering us the government we are working with is broken to such a degree that many of us turn away and instead console ourselves by putting our civic energy into “government innovation.”

All of us in the field of government re-invention will fail unless we bring our energy and ideas to the urgent need to innovate the political processes that deliver to us the government we truly want. I fear that the theory that using technology, data analytics, and agile methods to make our government work better, run faster, and be more responsive, without addressing the dysfunctions of our politics is massively flawed. By not paying equal attention to this side of the equation we are making a fatal mistake.

At every one of the conferences we all attend and in countless meetings we all have there is constant talk about changing “the culture” inside government. Great! But what about changing “the culture” of politics?

We all know the corrupting and distorting influences of money in the political system is a core part of the problem. And we all know that gerrymandered districts, discriminatory ballot access, antiquated voting systems, artificially entrenched political parties, endless presidential campaigns, are also deeply rooted bugs in our political system’s design, some that were put there by the original coders, the Founders, and others that have been added by subsequent generations of incumbents, not all well-meaning.

There may be some good ideas out there to fix some of these problems but one of them is not “government innovation.” The theory that government innovation will eventually be so successful that its benefits will trickle back up the food chain and deliver us better politics is a false premise. Politics is “the horse” and government is “the cart” and we can have the fanciest cart on the planet but it is being pulled by an elephant and a donkey that when combined cast a shadow that looks like a pig. (And leaves just as bad a mess.)

If you agree with me that those of us working to innovate government need to put equal energy into innovating politics, we don’t have to start from scratch. There is actually a community of people working on this problem at the local and federal levels. The problem is we are mostly working in silos, and frankly, struggling for the resources to experiment long enough to gain traction and make a difference.

I know this because I see them at Civic Hall and at our annual Personal Democracy Forum, and at various other events throughout the year. Some organizations working to “fix” politics have been around for years like Common Cause, Rock the Vote, Demos, and Taxpayers for Common Sense, and while they may need help innovating themselves they continue to passionately fight to fix our political system. Some are relatively new organizations like the Sunlight Foundation (full disclosure: I consult for them), The Democracy Fund (full disclosure: Civic Hall has received grants from them), PopVox, Democracy Works, Maplight, MayDayPAC,,, Citizen University, Indivisible, the Pluribus Project, VoteRunLead, Citizen Engagement Lab, Color of Change, 18 Million Rising, BetaNYC, Councilmatic, and many more.

And for all of these, there is just not enough. If you created a list of organizations working on innovation in government around the country today it would be endless. The amount of money going into government innovation dwarfs how much is going into “political innovation.”

If you talk with most people in the tech community you hear either the perspective that technology will eventually disrupt politics the same way it disrupts all other markets, or you see investors seeking a profit helping start-ups sell innovation to government. What you don’t see is enough investment or experimentation in developing a more effective, transparent, and equitable democracy. This a real problem and something we need to address if we ever hope to achieve the lasting effect of all of our collective good work.