Steve Denning recently wrote a great post titled How To Make Government Innovative Again. In his post Denning asks the following:

Why isn’t the Government generally more agile? Why isn’t innovation part of everything government does? Denning’s answer to these questions are: “Simple. The constraints on talented people who work in government agencies are enormous.” Denning lists six reasons why government is not more innovative.

1.     Public sector agencies often have no clear mission

When an agency tries to satisfy everyone, it usually ends up satisfying no one.

2.      Politics often intervenes

Legislators, intent on exercising control, constrain the agency from innovating in healthy directions.

3.      Agencies’ core competence: survival

In a political war zone, it is not surprising that agencies develop a core competence in survival.

4.       The public sector is afflicted by management fads

Public sector agencies also suffer invasions of successive management fads from the private sector.  Managers learn to keep their heads down, knowing that “this too shall pass.”

5.      Top managers don’t stay for long

The political heads of agencies are often political appointees who don’t stay for long. They are sometimes dismissive of previous activities of the agency and want to launch something “new” that they can call their own. They are often gone before much can happen. In this world, it is often safer for middle managers to wait for instructions and do what they are told, rather than stick their necks out for something that might become entangled in a political dogfight.

6.      Staff are often demoralized

Living in a political war zone can be dispiriting, even for people at high levels.

Almost all of the reasons that government is not more innovative or that talented employees cannot make creative things happen, stem from politics. At the local level, I believe that a professional county or city manager can make a difference on all six of the above items. A professional manager that is evaluated every year has a vested interest in establishing a clear mission. A trained professional manager that does not have to campaign to win an election and who has the authority to hire and fire department heads will select people based on qualifications and not on politics. Overall, a municipality that is managed by a professional manager, usually has less of a political environment.

If you are interested in local government that is more innovative and where talented people can make a difference with their skills then encourage the adoption of a professional manager form of government. In my home town of Buffalo, NY (the third poorest city in the nation), machine politics has created a government where politics, patronage and campaign cash drive government decisions more than new ideas. The only hope I see for turning things around is professional management, otherwise the six obstacles identified above will not change.