Innovation in Government? Yes, Where Else?

I’ve had numerous conversations with colleagues, friends, family and neighbors about my upcoming visit to Boston. The curious ones ask, what’s your work event? When I tell them, proudly, the Harvard Innovations in American Government awards, the nearly inevitable response is some sort of wisecrack. “Innovation and government, that’s an oxymoron!” “How much bureaucracy is involved in the awards presentations?”

Hey, I like mocking government inefficiency as much as the next person. But the frequency of this response is emblematic of a deeper problem in America, which political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call “American Amnesia.” We have collectively forgotten the degree to which we owe our prosperity to proactive government investments in research & development, infrastructure and public health made in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Other scholars take the premise even further. Not only is government an important partner of prosperity, it is the primary driver of innovation. Building on the work of Mariana Mazzucato, Ben Tarnoff puts it this way in The Guardian: “…nearly every major innovation since the second world war has required a big push from the public sector, for an obvious reason: the public sector can afford to take risks that the private sector can’t. Conventional wisdom says that market forces foster innovation. In fact, it’s the government’s insulation from market forces that has historically made it such a successful innovator. It doesn’t have to compete, and it’s not at the mercy of investors demanding a share of its profits. It’s also far more generous with the fruits of its scientific labor: no private company would ever be so foolish as to constantly give away innovations it has generated at enormous expense for free, but this is exactly what the government does.”

So yes, there’s plenty of innovation in government, from the federal level down to the local. Check out the wonderful finalists for the aforementioned Harvard award if you don’t believe me. Or our “how-to” library on this site. Or the Alliance for Innovation. I could go on, but the point is: we need to support more of this innovation rather than waiting for the private sector.

 

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