Government bureaucracies can be innovative argues Steve Kelman

When Weatherhead Professor of Public Management Steve Kelman studied the innovative practices sparked at Denver’s Peak Academy he discovered a new side to government innovation 

Published July 6, 2021 

When one thinks of innovative organizations, bureaucracies, especially government bureaucracies, rarely come to mind as the sort of nimble and norm shattering entities we often associate with innovation. Yet in a new HKS Faculty Working Paper, Bureaucracies as Innovative Organizations, Steve Kelman, Weatherhead Professor of Public Management and Ash Center faculty affiliate, argues that government bureaucracies, too, can be innovative. Using the example of the City of Denver’s Peak Academy to demonstrate that bureaucracies and the public officials who run them can be sources of what Kelman terms “microinnovations,” the paper shows that contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s entirely possible to foster a culture of innovation even with the most mundane of bureaucratic activities. We sat down with Kelman to discuss his new paper, what he found when he studied the innovative practices sparked at Denver’s Peak Academy, and what scholars can learn about bureaucratic innovation more generally.

Ash: What are some of the challenges to innovation in the public sector, and why is the conventional wisdom about sparking bureaucratic change in the private sector not always applicable to government?

Kelman: There are two major challenges. One is that government cannot offer anything like the same monetary incentives (cash/stock options) for successful innovation as private firms can. The second is that often in government the same clear performance measures available to companies (profits) are not available – goals are often more vague and difficult to quantify.
Bureaucracy is often criticized as rigid and inefficient, but in the paper you argue that bureaucracies do in fact have some features that are particularly amendable to innovation. What are some these features that are unique to government bureaucracies?

Bureaucratic organization helps create organizational capabilities in general, and such capabilities can include capabilities for innovation, in the form of routines for organizing innovation processes and templates for innovative techniques. These may better enable innovation than trying to innovate from scratch, which is what the common view of the process of innovation by flash of brilliance often recommends.
Why did you decide to study Denver’s Peak Academy, and what sort of innovations were developed there by public officials who participated in its training programs?

I was looking to study an organization that promoted ordinary, unspectacular innovations in government. A colleague at Berkeley told me about Peak Academy.

The innovations were in three buckets – standardizing processes, streamlining processes to remove unnecessary steps, and lowering the costs and/or improving the quality of services being delivered.

Scholars interested in government innovation should pay more attention to 'microinnovations' or small changes argues Kelman

In your paper, you write about many of the ideas generated by Peak Academy participants as “microinnovations,” which you describe as undramatic, mundane, and process-oriented improvements in the work of government. Is there some debate about whether these can be truly referred to as innovations?
Yes, there is a debate. I see them as innovations partly because they are changes that are new to the organization adopting them, even if they are not “never thought of before.” I see them as innovations partly because the civil servants developing them see them as innovations.

To successfully develop new ideas and ways of delivering services, you observe that Peak Academy participants often “stay in their lane,” a term hardly synonymous with innovation. How does this more incremental approach result in successful innovations?

Peak Academy urges people in training to “stick to their lane” in the sense of working in areas closest to what they are already doing and know the most about. The idea is that this eases the transition to being innovative. This ties in with the idea of microinnovations.