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November 17, 2009

Remember the old joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron? I’d bet a lot of money that it was started by people who served in the military. “Government innovation” could suffer the same stigma.
When I ran a government agency, I used to remind both staff and stakeholders that “innovation” was both something that government manages ineptly, at best, and also an attribute that we should endeavor to prize highly and reward in our grantees.
So, the recent plethora of “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” funds and initiatives that continue to multiply in various federal departments spur mixed feelings: elation at the value that’s being placed on innovation, and skepticism that most of them will live up to their billing.
Now, don’t get me wrong: some of the best people I know in government are the very people who have been tasked with setting up these funds, and I’m confident that if there are ways to succeed these people will find them. Moreover, I believe that many organizations in the nonprofit sector are well positioned to benefit from these initiatives.
However, the messages sent to the administrators of these pools of money and initiatives in the departments of Education, Energy, Agriculture, and State, the Small Business Administration, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and elsewhere are so contradictory that the administrators’ heads must be spinning.

  • These funds are supposed to support new and thoughtful ways to achieve social impact, BUT administrators must get the money out the door so fast that it would be a challenge even if they were told to replicate tried-and-true programs.
  • Investments are meant to test the efficacy of some of these new approaches, BUT administrators must establish the predicted impacts of the initiatives in advance and be accountable for achieving those impacts.
  • All kinds of innovation and entrepreneurship—business models, service delivery mechanisms, scaling schemes—are encouraged, BUT all of the investments should reflect the prudence required of federal tax dollars, and federal investments should not fail.

In other words: be innovative and entrepreneurial, BUT don’t take risks, know the outcomes in advance, and get the money out the door NOW.
I’m hopeful BUT my expectations are low.
Monday’s post: A Spark of Light in Texas.

David Eisner