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Cats, sand-castles and butterflies

November 25, 2010

I didn’t want to leave the public sector innovation topic without some acknowledgment of those who actually do remain and fight the good fight. Not too many survive however, and I expect a few to drop off the perch even as I write, but there are quite a number who continue to work valiantly against the insurmountable odds.

It seems to me, that irrespective of the good work people do in advancing thinking and practice, they are building on sand given the next change of leadership is invariably just around the corner. Now a change in authority shouldn’t necessarily mark the death knell of the innovative practice, but sadly, all too often, it does.

I’m unable to say why exactly, but I reckon from experience there is a practice that I like to refer to as the “cat-spray phenomenon.” When a new manager takes over an established area, all too often their behaviour is not dissimilar to that of an alley-cat that is somehow compelled to strategically spray their “scent” to mark their new territory. One of the areas they will tend to spray the most, are areas where there has been significant and demonstrable success that cannot be attributed in any way to themselves.

Often therefore, innovative pockets of the sector that are successfully applying new management practices are building on sand, irrespective of the degree of success they have attained. Making matters worse there is an electoral cycle that invariably brings change in senior personnel and the cessation of many beneficial programmes based not on some practical need but rather, on some idealogical whim.

Anyway, back to the courageous souls that brave this innovation moonscape. Working in innovation in Govt (the real type, not the bureaucratic type) is much like being a radio talk-back announcer. (Broadcast radio was a career diversion of mine along the way to this guest-blogging career pinnacle.) Once you are on-air in radio it is simply a matter of time until you are sacked. Likewise, the very second a group starts to apply innovative methods and approach their tasks in a new and different manner, the clock is ticking and the “organisational anti-bodies” start to amass and encroach.

In 2009 we ran a large archetype-extraction and issues-mapping session in which 60 people representing all departments spent the day looking at innovation in the sector. One of the narrative fragments that was captured during that session that has stayed with us all since was “Innovation exists in the public sector in the form of a resistance movement.” A concise and telling statement that never fails to resonate with anyone progressive who has worked in public administration.

It’s not however all gloom and doom. There are still many progressive people in Government attempting to improve the way things are done, it’s just that in longevity terms they are the butterflies of the sector, not the tortoises. (Zoology was another career diversion on the way to …)

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