I had the pleasure of working on an internal government project. I was part of a special projects team dedicated to analysing a prevalent issue and identifying a solution. To my delight, bringing structured innovation into government was a welcome process. No rock left unturned. No red tape. We had complete freedom to to anyone about anything.

Working so deeply in government for the first time was truly eye opening.

I had always wondered what the inside of a governing machine looked like – outside the realm of assumption. What were the drivers and pressures that led to decisions? How well connected must their staff be, to carry such a load on behalf of their citizens? How quickly (or slowly) do ideas come to fruition? Is there disconnect between government & its citizens?

I had my own assumptions but I decided to leave those at the door for the sake of objectivity.

Despite accepting that something needed to change, the comfort of conformity was the biggest road block I witnessed. Doing things differently was acknowledged as a need. Yet there was so much hesitation to change lanes. It wasn’t so much the lane change that was the issue but answering the question: who will be responsible for driving?

Our project team was given ample attention from those at every level of the government hierarchy. No one avoided the topic and help was welcome. Once the root cause(s) were identified, our remaining task was to design a solution or concept validated enough to pass on to an (unidentified) internal team to deeply consider implementation in light to competing priorities and strategy. This step needed accountability. Someone to pass the baton to. Someone to keep the torch lit.

As with many projects in a large organisation, this person or champion needs to be high enough on the ‘ladder’ to keep a project top of mind, ensuring it does not get pushed under the rug of general circumstance. Someone in leadership willing to be the face of a bold change, their drive trickling down to the front line and making things truly happen.

I could see the identified problems and solutions resonate. I could see the hope for a new way of doing things. It was time for change yet, no one wanted to champion the change.

Now, you might think, maybe a more worthy idea would have someone stand tall and carry this change forward. What if for the next 2 minutes, you believed the delivered solution was not the problem. Then what would be?

No one wants to be first and no one wants to be last.

It is really common for no one to stand up and lead migration from the status quo. It is easy to build barriers and drown oneself under a wave of reasons for why every idea will fail. The fear of failure can be so great that only when what is different becomes the norm, will it become a viable option. No one wants to be first but no one wants to be last.

What fosters this mentality? The following two statements, although not always spoken, shed a lot of light in helping understand the complexity of this question.

We only have time to deal with emergencies.

Putting out fires is a massive component of leadership. Yet, in my experience it felt like there was a constant state of emergency. When a fire was put out, another would take its place. This creates habit. Unless something is imminent, it is not dealt with.

This is an understandable reaction yet it doesn’t promote growth or change. It maintains the status quo. I see this a lot in business. If we are not careful, we can all fall into the trap of dealing with the present. It is the most pressing. It is what keeps us up at night.

However, while someone is dealing with the issues of the present, someone else needs to deal with the future. That’s how we grow.

Any risk is a risk we cannot afford to take.

Being in government means being accountable to all your citizens. It is like managed investment. Citizens pay taxes. Government is entrusted with putting it to good use and they are under 24/7 scrutiny. The pressure of being successful is blatantly obvious. The pressure to never fail. Many succumb to this pressure and choose to be conservative –  conserving what is there and doing only what is necessary or proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Taking risks or trying something new is not a luxury a government body (central or local) typically has. This is understandable yet it doesn’t promote growth or change. It maintains the status quo.

Govtech initiatives have come the closest to giving government a sandbox to innovate and test ideas without judgment. More often than not, those initiatives are introduced by consultants or agencies who are bound to leave it up to someone internal to keep it going. 

You may think what I write next is a solution to these problems but I don’t have one. All I believe is that people make the biggest difference. Help from agencies and consultants is much needed but the spirit of change and innovation needs to be grown internally to achieve long term results. A healthy mix of realists, risk takers, visionaries and doers. Would that be the A team?

Are those people sought by government or attracted to government work? Are citizens willing to take a little risk with their contribution to running their town, city or country? Should they?