Innovation, accountability drive high performance

Jane Linder, an executive research fellow and director of the Accenture Institute for High-Performance Business, says successful public sector e-government projects usually have a number of characteristics in common. One of them is what she calls managerial innovation. Here’s what she had to say

in a recent interview with TIG on the topic:

TIG: What examples of a culture of entrepreneurship have you seen in Canada?

JL: Canada Post. They were trying to create a kind of consulting business by helping post offices in other countries learn how to do things well, which I always think is an interesting idea because you might get some revenue but more interesting is that you face what you have and what you know with different eyes. You really have to test it in a different way if you say to someone else this is what you ought to do, so you get a check mark for being both entrepreneurial externally but also it feeds back to the inside.

TIG: You have some interesting ideas about innovation when it comes to government.

JL: I have a new attitude about this — you might call it a soapbox. The vast majority of literature about innovation is about products. Governments mostly have services or things like that. But one of the things we learned from the product and technology space is that the innovations that happen in tightly connected contexts where you pull one corner and everything else starts to shimmer are both the hardest to do and potentially the most valuable.

TIG: I understand you are now doing research on what you call “”wildly successful projects.”” What are some examples of those?

JL: (One is) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency project. As with most wildly successful projects, these don’t come to fruition overnight. This one started in the mid to late 1990s when an executive in the EPA — and he was not at the top — decided with some colleagues that it would be really wonderful if the people in the U.S. could look at air quality, not six months ago if they submitted the right freedom of information request, but today or now or tomorrow. There happened at the time to be a grant from the Clinton administration, so he and some colleagues said, “”Let’s find a way to dig that data out from where it is because there are air quality monitors all over the country and that data gets submitted for compliance purposes.”” He asked his network of monitors if they would be willing to send the data to him on a real-time basis every hour and some agreed and some ducked, and over a period of five years he got to the point where we now have a real-time air quality report for ozone, and a one- and two-day forecast for air quality. This is remarkable because there’s no law that says it has to be done, it’s all done on a volunteer basis, and it was created out of nothing.

TIG: Often when you talk to the public sector about e-government, cost effectiveness or return on investment is cited as secondary in importance to improved service delivery. Is that a mistake?

JL: No. It’s exactly what our research on the social security organizations of the world has shown. We just finished a survey and nine in-depth case studies in social security administrations around the world and fully 30 per cent of them said all the objectives they set had to do with improving service quality; about 16 per cent of them had to do with cost effectiveness. I frankly think that’s not a mistake at all.

TIG: The importance of accountability in e-government is interesting because that has been missing a fair number of times from major expensive projects. How can government organizations build more of this into their e-government efforts and what is the service supplier’s role in that?

JL: That’s a great question, because frequently when we think about accountability we think about measurement. It has a kind of audit spin on it — I’m going to come in, I’m going to look and see what you did, did you do everything you were supposed to do … there’s a little smell of police work. I have a different view of what real accountability is. I think it feels like ownership.

All the people who talk about balanced scorecards will tell you that something like ownership may have some indicators that you could actually count and see but it doesn’t really yield to measurement. The kinds of things you can accomplish when you get to that emotional level of commitment are orders of magnitude better than if you know that some auditor is going to be coming around looking at whether you made your number or not. I think the kind of accountability we should aspire to is that personal commitment level, and frankly in government you have more of a chance of getting there because the whole purpose of being in government is a higher purpose to start with.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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