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Innovation and Change, Old and New



Two items came into my inbox this morning that accurately reflected what I see is the two faces of innovation in the public sector.


The first was an article in THE CITY describing how New York City’s embattled public housing authority (NYCHA) spent $3 million for a report that largely echoed the same points made in a Boston Consulting Group (BCG) report they’d spent $10 million for 7 years ago. The 587-page report authored by KPMG outlines a number of recommendations to help improve an agency with a maintenance backlog of over $32 billion, $250 million in suspect no-bid contracts, and almost 100 apartments that tested positive for lead paint.


The report’s recommendations cover the usual range of organizational, staffing, planning, analysis, and communication, fitting what I call the “traditional model” of innovation whereby an outside “expert” comes in and tells an organization what it needs to do. While the recommendations can be insightful and useful, they are often ignored, as NYCHA ignored the original BCG report.


What’s worse, most of the recommendations were probably known to NYCHA employees. Often as a consultant, I find myself amplifying the words of staff members I encounter. The unfortunate truth I came to quickly realize (in both the public and private sectors) is that leadership often gives more weight to words of advice from (paid) outsiders than knowledgeable insiders.


The second article was a Q&A with the recent winner of Denver Peak Academy’s Best Individual Innovation Award winner. Angus Strayhorn, an employee of Denver’s Human Services Child Support Services agency, developed a template to standardize the data necessary to properly document cases in the child support system, saving time and increasing accuracy. Angus worked with his leadership and his colleagues to develop the template, ensuring it met the need without requiring any additional resources (a core tenant of Peak Academy work). This model is something I like calling the “employee empowerment” model.


The contrast between these two is important. While the first is much larger in scope and depth, I find it questionable whether it ultimately did or will deliver any value to the organization. The same people will likely be working in the same way, free to ignore the recommendations and continue doing “business as usual,” or, at the very least, only making the minimum number of changes necessary.


In the second, an employee is empowered to make a change. It’s a small change, but it opens the door to others making small changes where they work, evaluating and optimizing from the ground up, where it impacts the people. Imagine all 13,000 NYCHA employees similarly empowered to make relevant changes in their work. It may not be traditional, but I have to believe that, based on the success of Denver Peak Academy and other innovation-focused efforts across the country, that it would yield much better results for much less money than under the traditional model, with so many more benefits in cost, morale, customer satisfaction, and employee retention than can be quantified, even by someone like KPMG.

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