February 17, 2021

Innovation within the public sector, specifically governmental organizations, will slowly emerge as workplace culture shifts to a less authoritarian leadership-driven environment. In the public sector, older leadership regime protects the status quo, content with incremental changes, to preserve their status, trying to avoid major career-ending mistakes, and clinging to old skills in a rapidly shifting environment of new technologies and paradigms. Leadership will need to adapt to meet the needs of the workforce, as well as the needs of the organization as a whole. Leadership style changes are important, but more important is the cultivation of an inclusive, safe, collaborative team-based structure within the department.

While we have made great strides to create a diverse organization, inclusion is not yet a guarantee. Equality and inclusion are often granted as a matter of policy but few embrace it as a matter of culture and behavior. People want, need, and deserve validation. High psychological safety drives performance and innovation. Leaders must first ensure unconditional inclusion safety, which is the foundation of psychological safety, followed by granting learner safety.
Low employee engagement is a common problem in the public sector – according to Gallup, 71% of US government employees are disengaged, costing taxpayers $500 billion annually in lost productivity. The second stage is learner safety, and employees crave developmental opportunities and want to grow within an organization, in turn, they are much more likely to be engaged with their job and bring their best each day.

As employees grow beyond the apprenticeship nature of the learner safety stage they cross over to a contributor safety stage of self-directed performance where the organization trusts them to perform competently and respects their ability to create value, therefore becoming an earned privilege. In the final stage of psychological safety, challenger safety is based on earning the right to innovate based on a track record of performance, where the organization grants permission to challenge the status quo in good faith. Proactive, offensive innovation is a response to an opportunity and is attainable at the pinnacle of psychological safety. Without challenger safety, there is a high cost to curiosity and creativity, usually resulting in embarrassment and emotional pain. The process of challenging the status quo usually involves a degree of conflict, confrontation, and stress. Innovation is not comfortable or frictionless, and it is hard enough because there is no safety from failure. Innovation ultimately emerges from the process of inquiry through collaboration.

The key issue for innovation in government is cultivating an organizational structure capable of elevating cross-sector collaboration through encouraging less hierarchy and more organizational flattening, even if not structurally flat. Leaders must embrace the uncomfortable nature of disruptive questions, cultivate a climate necessary to encourage constructive dissent through challenger safety and endorse open, transparent organizational development. The barriers to innovation will not be the fears associated with risk-taking and how it will impact the budget but rather if we have an engaged workforce that feels valued and safe enough to share their creativity in hopes of innovating a better government.


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